The printing press and the Internet are two publication technologies that radically altered the established order and created a paradigm shift in the ways people see the world and their place in it. In their respective eras, the printing press and the Internet have been powerful agents of change in politics, empowering the weak to challenge the strong, giving a voice to those who are voiceless. There are those who claim that each new medium invented displace previous mediums, rendering them obsolete. This essay will argue that these two publishing technologies are not at odds with each other, rather they build on from one to the other and profoundly shaped the political dynamics of contemporary society.
The printing press was instrumental in opening way for the Protestant Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, and the Enlightenment. Although books have existed long ago, they were rare and expensive. Some were produced through the painstaking method of pressing ink on to paper from carefully carved woodblocks and others were produced by hand – these methods took a long time and were prone to errors. Moveable type printing was developed in China around 1040AD (Needham, 1986: 201), however, it did not take off as it did in Europe because of the enterprising nature of the Europeans. Johannes Guttenberg, a metal worker in Mainz (Germany), was credited for having invented a moveable and reusable metal type and press in 1430 (McNeill & McNeill, 2003: 179). In 1440 a working model was completed and in 1455 he printed the Bible (McNeill & McNeill, 2003:180). Guttenberg’s invention allowed printers to manufacture far more books faster and cheaper than before. He ignited an explosion of printed works which at some point clashed with the teachings of the most powerful institution in Europe at the time– the Roman Catholic Church. The Church’s monopoly was stirred by the mass production of books in different languages, and the ideologies embedded in some of them which it could no longer censor because there were too many books published. One of these ideologies which challenged the Church was the Protestant Movement of Martin Luther (1483-1546). Luther, dismayed by the corruption of the Church and its misrepresentation of the teachings of the Bible, translated the Bible into German in 1522 and re-interpreted it (Beveridge (ed.), 2008: xi). Between 1517 and 1520, Martin Luther published 30 books which generated more than 300,000 copies (Balnaves, Donald & Shoesmith, 2009: 19). Despite being banned, Luther’s works resulted in the break away from Roman Catholicism and ignited the creation of different denominations of Christianity, such as Lutheranism, Anglicanism, and Calvinism. Luther’s reformation of Christianity could not have been achieved without the printing press spreading his teachings and doctrines. Like the Internet, the printing press allowed revolutionary ideas to spread quickly, which was not possible before.
Despite being tarnished, the power of the Roman Catholic Church did not collapse there. The Church was so powerful and its ideologies so deeply ingrained in people’s minds that even the Scientific Revolution of the 16th and early 17th century could not destabilise the Church’s teachings. Science was then the antithesis of the Church and those who challenged the Church’s teachings were condemned and prosecuted, such as the inquisition and trial of Galileo Galilee in 1612, who was charged with heresy for suggesting that the Earth revolved around the Sun rather than the Church’s Aristotelian belief that the Earth is the centre of the Universe. Galileo’s published works, despite being banned and burned, were able to still exist today because the printing press enabled so many copies to be made that a few escaped the wrath of the Church. It took many years and not until the Enlightenment Age of the 18th Century that Galileo’s works were acknowledged by society and the Church to be valid findings. Elizabeth Eisenstein claimed that the printing press was a revolution in all aspects of society (Eisenstein, 1983: xvi). From a political viewpoint, this was hardly the case. The printing press was an instrument for change, however, its impacts on all aspects of society took many years to develop. Thus, the printing press did not create a revolution in politics, however, it did have the impact of undermining the Roman Catholic Church and made the proliferation of religions, science, literature, arts, and commerce possible. This was because it gave opportunities for alternative viewpoints to be published. It gave rise to new elites (scientists, political thinkers, theorists) and led the way to modernity.
In a postmodern society, the Internet is a publishing technology that has tremendous influence in shaping politics and reinventing the mental universe of those who use it. It empowers citizens through open-education, open-publishing and provides an avenue for rigorous political debates in online forums. Take the case of the 1999 election in Indonesia for example. The Internet was used rigorously by students to criticise and garner support for the overthrow of the dictator Suharto. Where mainstream media such as television, radio, and newspapers were restricted in space and content, the Internet became a medium of unlimited space that was difficult for the government to trace and censor (Hill & Sen, 2005: 81). The Internet was also a medium that educated Indonesian society about democracy and provided transparency in the 1999 election in Indonesia, after Suharto resigned. According to a study, the Internet enabled “86% of the public to regard the counted votes to be honest and fair [and] the proportion that “do not know what democracy means” declined from 15% to 8%” (Hill & Sen, 2005:88). It provided a gateway for politicians to communicate with their constituents through their websites and proved to be a “democratic technology” capable of breaking down barriers between politicians and the people they represent and serve.
The complexity of the Internet’s reach and its content presents social and political challenges to governments throughout the world. Due to convergence, the process of the flow of content from traditional media platforms to digital media (Nightengale & Dwyer (eds.), 2007: 24), the Internet has become an all-encompassing medium where television, newspapers and radio are rolled into one. Furthermore, rather than being a one-way flow from media producers to consumers, the Internet is an open-source medium where consumers can also become producers, being able to produce blogs, videos, pictures and sound pieces online. Due to the difficulty of monitoring the content published online, the participatory culture of the Internet is a breeding ground for inappropriate content and is dangerous to those most vulnerable to it –children. While governments around the world have endeavoured to filter inappropriate sites, such as child pornography, their filtering process has been criticised by civil liberty experts as an attempt to also censor democracy. In Australia, for example, the Australian Government’s $125.8 million plan for content filtering has been a contentious issue as its “blacklist” of banned websites goes beyond the scope of protecting children from harmful websites (Edwards, 2009). The World Wide Web presents a challenge for the government to keep a balance between protecting its citizens and at the same time give them their freedom. The above case illustrates that conventional forms of governance has failed to keep up with the Internet as a publication technology, just like how the Roman Catholic Church was unable to completely eradicate the publication of books which challenged the legitimacy of the Church’s ideologies in the 15th Century.
The realm of politics has been transformed as politicians utilise the power of the publishing ability of the Internet to convey their messages and garner support from the public, especially the younger generations who are active users of the Internet. This method can be likened to Henry Jenkins’ concept of “fan culture” where by actively using digital media, politicians convey they are in touch with the people in all levels of society (Jenkins, 2006:291). The Obama Campaign of 2008 in America, for example, heavily relied on the Internet to promote Barack Obama as the most suitable candidate for presidency. It seemed appropriate given the context of Internet users in America. According to statistics, around 74.2% of Americans are regular Internet users (Internet World Stats, Dec. 2009). These regular Internet users went online during the 2008 election to take part in, or get news and information about the 2008 campaign. Fully 60% of Internet users in America went online for news about politics or the campaign, 38% communicated with others about politics online, and 59% used email, instant messaging, text messages or Twitter to share political messages (Smith, 2009:3). Obama heavily relied on his Blackberry to make videos and post messages online. Online access also enabled his supporters to donate money to his campaign through his party’s online website, no matter where they were. It is argued that he won the presidency because of his effective use of modern publishing technologies such as the Internet compared to Republican John McCain who relied more on traditional media such as television and radio which failed to create the same connection with technology-savvy Americans. Obama had great appeal to young Americans because he was part of their “popular culture”. As can be seen, aspects of society such as the outcomes of elections are influenced by the most widely used publishing technology in society at the time, in this case, the Internet.
The Internet is not only the domain of legitimate governments. It is also home to illegitimate regimes and lately, with the war on terror, Islamic extremists. In recent years, terrorist groups such as Al Qaida and Jemaah Islamiah (JI) have turned to the Internet to broadcast their messages without having to go through the filtering of traditional, established media outlets. Al Qaida’s website, alneda.com managed to elude US authorities for some time until it was shut down in 2002 (Hoffman, 2006: 214). Terrorists have used their websites to generate publicity and attract the attention of potential recruits to their cause. Western authorities have managed to shut down various terrorist websites, but new ones continue to emerge (Hoffman, 2006: 219). During the 15th Century anarchists used pamphlets to distribute their political views with limited scope; in the 21st Century terrorists use the Internet to distribute their political views with unlimited scope as the Internet is a global publication technology that has few boundaries. The globalisation or internationalisation of the Internet means that it is a publishing technology that can be used for all means, whether for good or for evil, and that is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.
The Internet has become an avenue for citizen participation in government decision-making. The participatory culture of the Internet has led to what is called e-democracy. It is a form of democracy where everybody participates in governmental decisions online (Balnaves, Donald & Shoesmith, 2009: 203). Governance in liberal democracies seeks to share power in decision-making and encourage citizens to participate in the policies carried out. The 2004 United Nations Global E-Government Survey found that of 178 countries that maintained a government website, 43 had e-government policy statements encouraging people to participate in public policy-making and only 20 had an actual provision for user feedback (Balnaves, Donald & Shoesmith, 2009: 203). The United Nations 2008 survey provided an “e-participation index” which ranked the United States as the leader, followed by South Korea, Denmark, France and Australia (Macnamara, 2010: 179). As can be seen, the Internet has radically transformed the way politics is carried out and in a sense is good for citizens since governments are created “for the people, by the people”. Although this participatory culture of e-democracy will likely have the negative impact of slowing down government decision-making process, it is necessary because the slowness of decision making is the sinew of wisdom. Furthermore, it will likely increase the transparency in governmental decisions and polling results.
In conclusion, both the printing press and the Internet have revealed that publication technologies provide new opportunities for engagement in politics from all kinds of people in society (e.g. anarchists, politicians, terrorists), and foster participatory democracy, creating a more effective ‘public sphere’ of debate. While they often present challenges and at times difficult for society to accept, they are part of the transformation of society. Publication technologies will continue to provide a critical discourse to national and international affairs and are powerful mediums that can dictate the success or failure of a society.
‘Eddy’ Huy Nhan z3190068
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