What makes a communications technology revolutionary? One answer to this is to ask whether it fundamentally changes the way society is organized. This can be a very hard question to answer, because true fundamental changes alter society in such a way that it becomes difficult to speak of past society without imposing our present understanding.
In her seminal work, The Printing Press as An Agent of Change, Elizabeth Eisenstein argues just that:
When ideas are detached from the media used to transmit them, they are also cut off from the historical circumstances that shape them, and it becomes difficult to perceive the changing context within which they must be viewed.
Today we rightly think of the internet and the mobile phone, but long ago, the printing press and the telegraph both had just as heavy an impact on the development of society.
Thinking of the time before the telegraph, when communications had to be hand delivered, is quaint. Trying to conceive the world before the uniformity of communication brought about by the printing press is almost unimaginable.
Eisenstein argues that the printing press “is of special historical significance because it produced fundamental alterations in prevailing patterns of continuity and change.”
Before the printing press there were no books, not in the sense that we understand them. There were manuscripts that were copied by scribes, which contained inconsistencies and embellishments, and modifications that suited who the scribe was working for. The printing press halted the evolution of symbols: For the first time maps and numbers were fixed.
Furthermore, because pre-press scholars had to go to manuscripts, Eisenstein says we should “recognize the novelty of being able to assemble diverse records and reference guides, and of being able to study them without having to transcribe them at the same time” that was afforded by the printing press.
This led to new ways of being able to compare and thus develop knowledge, by reducing the friction of getting to the old knowledge:
More abundantly stocked bookshelves obviously increased opportunities to consult and compare different texts. Merely by making more scrambled data available, by increasing the output of Aristotelian, Alexandrian and Arabic texts, printers encouraged efforts to unscramble these data.
Eisenstein argues that many of the great thinkers of the 16th century, such as Descartes and Montaigne, would have been unlikely to have produced what they did without the changes wrought by the printing press. She says of Montaigne, “that he could see more books by spending a few months in his Bordeaux tower-study than earlier scholars had seen after a lifetime of travel.”
The printing press increased the speed of communication and the spread of knowledge: Far less man hours were needed to turn out 50 printed books than 50 scribed manuscripts.
Henry Ford famously said of life before the car “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses“. This sentiment could be equally applied to the telegraph, a communications technology that came about 400 years after the printing press.
Before the telegraph, the speed of communication was dependent on the speed of the physical object doing the transporting – the horse, or the ship. Societies were thus organized around the speed of communication available to them, from the way business was conducted and wars were fought to the way interpersonal communication was conducted.
Let's consider, for example, the way the telegraph changed the conduct of war.
Prior to the telegraph, countries shared detailed knowledge of their plans with their citizens in order to boost morale, knowing that their plans would arrive at the enemy the same time their ships did. Post-telegraph, communications could arrive far faster than soldiers: This was something to consider!
In addition, as Tom Standage considers in his book The Victorian Internet, the telegraph altered the command structure in battle. “For who was better placed to make strategic decisions: the commander at the scene or his distant superiors?”
The telegraph brought changes similar in many ways to the printing press: It allowed for an accumulation of knowledge and increased the availability of this knowledge; more people had access to more information.
And society was forever altered as the new speed of communication made it fundamentally impossible to not use the telegraph, just as it is near impossible not to use a mobile phone or the Internet today.
Once the telegraph was widespread, there was no longer a way to do business without using it. Having up to the minute stock quotes changed the way businesses evaluated their holdings. Being able to communicate with various offices across the country created centralization and middle management. These elements became part of doing business so that it became nonsensical to talk about developing any aspect of business independent of the effect of electronic communication.
A Final Thought on Technology Uptake
One can argue that the more revolutionary an invention is, the slower the initial uptake into society, as society must do a fair amount of reorganizing to integrate the invention.
Such was the case for both the telegraph and printing press, as they allowed for things that were never before possible. Not being possible, they were rarely considered. Being rarely considered, there wasn't a large populace pining for them to happen. So when new options presented themselves, no one was rushing to embrace them, because there was no general appreciation of their potential. This is, of course, a fundamental aspect of revolutionary technology. Everyone has to figure out how (and why) to use it.
In The Victorian Internet, Standage says of William Cooke and Samuel Morse, the British and American inventors, respectively, of the telegraph:
[They] had done the impossible and constructed working telegraphs. Surely the world would fall at their feet. Building the prototypes, however, turned out to be the easy part. Convincing people of their significance was far more of a challenge.
It took years for people to see advantages with the telegraph. Even after the first lines were built, and the accuracy and speed of the communications they could carry verified, Morse realized that “everybody still thought of the telegraph as a novelty, as nothing more than an amusing subject for a newspaper article, rather than the revolutionary new form of communication that he envisaged.”
The new technology might confer great benefits, but it took a lot of work building the infrastructure, both physical and mental, to take any advantage of them.
The printing press faced similar challenges. In fact, books printed from Gutenberg until 1501 have their own term, incunabula, which reflects the transition from manuscript to book. Eisenstein writes: “Printers and scribes copied each other’s products for several decades and duplicated the same texts for the same markets during the age of incunabula.”
The momentum took a while to build. When it did, the changes were remarkable.
But looking at these two technologies serves as a reminder of what revolutionary means in this context: The use by and value to society cannot be anticipated. Therefore, great and unpredictable shifts are caused when they are adopted and integrated into everyday life.