The Information Age and the Printing Press

Looking Backward to See Ahead

by James A. Dewar


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There are some provocative parallels between the communications changes enabled by networked computers and those enabled by the printing press in its early days. Each defining technology represents an important breakthrough in the ability of humans to communicate with each other; each enables important changes in how we preserve, update and disseminate knowledge; how we retrieve knowledge; the ownership of knowledge; and how we acquire knowledge. The printing press era was dominated by unintended consequences of applications of the technology and we are already seeing the dominance of unintended consequences in some areas of networked computers. Despite the strength of the parallels between the two eras, it would be unwarranted to conclude that the network era will progress as did the printing press era. However, the strength of the parallels does suggest that: 1) networked computers could produce profound cultural changes in our time, 2) unintended consequences are not only possible but likely to upset conventional extrapolations of current trends (or even historical parallels), and 3) the changes could take decades to see clearly.

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