What the internet can learn from the printing press
Everything has been done before. The fact that we keep repeating ourselves is undeniable by anyone who observes any sector of human life, from fashion, which is constantly undergoing revivals, to art which seldom says anything new. With all the innovation out there, we’re constantly bombarded by new social networks and new products we didn’t know we needed, and it takes a cynic like me to point out that most of the time it’s just like something else we’ve seen, but with some small change. There is nothing wrong with this – innovation doesn’t take place in a vacuum.
The purpose of this article is to affront something huge – the internet – with another huge thing – the printing press – to show how some of the problems of the present have been dealt with in the past. This is an article that I submitted in 2009 to Wired Italia, who neglected to send me a rejection letter; when I came across it today while cleaning house I thought it was still pretty good and worth sharing here on my own information channel. (NB: long post, 2500 words, 10 minutes reading time.)
In preparation for an undergraduate lecture on Renaissance prints, I was looking over the standard texts for a “take” on the material. I paused upon William M. Ivins Jr.’s characterization, back in 1953, of the fifteenth century as a moment in visual communication in which the “road block” was finally broken. The printing press, thus, was a kind of paving machine for the transmission of text and image. It occurred to me, not very originally, that in the infancy of our theorizing about it, the internet was also a kind of road – the “information superhighway”. In fact, a youthful Bill Gates hinted at this metaphor by posing on “The Road Ahead” for his 1995 bestseller, in which he also observes that “the information highway will transform our culture as dramatically as Gutenberg’s press did the Middle Ages” (p. 9).
The web is now more an intergalactic space travel route than a two lane highway in Arizona, but the printing press versus internet comparison deserves a deeper look. When each of these technologies hit the market, we faced two main interrelated issues: creation and control. Fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Europeans grappled with the legal and social issues created by the printing press on the local and personal level that was available to them before our unified countries and continent. After the initial growing pains, they developed positive solutions to deal with their new technological products. Some of these solutions may not be applicable in the internet age for a range of reasons, but we can learn from their approach.
We all know that on the internet everyone’s an author, and some of us question whether or not that’s a good thing. With both the printing press and the internet, the ease, speed, and low cost of technology produced first an explosion of material, and soon, concerns about accuracy and quality of content. While the new types of books to hit sixteenth-century shelves were not quite as offensive as badly spelled blogs on medieval fairs or as obscure as niche-market sites, the sudden availability of perhaps a few hundred titles in a range of subjects was a lot to handle for a market previously dominated by hand-copied Bibles and medieval scholastic texts. And that’s just to speak of books! Images, too, were reproduced in great numbers with inexpensive, wide distribution. The printing press also permitted the development of new subject matters not found in other media due to functional or cost restraints, like board games and humorous or erotic scenes, which were created by a new category of content-producers called printmakers and print-publishers.
The much hyped February 2007 ban on Wikipedia by the Department of History at Middlebury College in Vermont [i] is a concrete response to a legitimate concern about the accuracy of information made available through a technology that encourages authorship. If everyone’s an author, everyone is also a scholar and a teacher, so we have finally fulfilled the 1564 prophesy of Leonardo Fioravanti that, thanks to the press, “forse un giorno verrà tempo, che tutti saremo Dottori a un modo”.[ii] The Middlebury history professor in question was, however, worried that said “doctors” were unqualified, as was Filippo da Strada, who already in the 1470s lamented the decline in quality of Latin instruction thanks to book-learning: “ora gentaia che ignoran’ [i]talliano / te insegnaranno il parlare Tuliano?” Some professors suggest a pro-active solution to misinformation on the internet – one that I have employed myself – by having students craft correct information to be posted on Wikipedia and other popular sites like YouTube. This is the 21st-century version of the errata corrige slip that takes advantage of the speed and flexibility of the internet.
The new generation – and that’s all of us – simply needs to learn how to recognize reliable information. Banning Wikipedia is a good rule of thumb, but it does not teach a skill that can be applied five years from now when there is a new, presently unimaginable type of information-diffusing network. With greater access to material comes the opportunity to develop analytic and evaluative skills that are not unlike those formed by our predecessors. Early Modern readers could easily determine the type of a book “by its cover”, through paratextual elements such as size, paper quality, typographic font, and layout. The sixteenth-century essentially had its equivalent of the Harmony Romance with a hunky guy on the cover, printed tightly on cheap paper. Inside the book, unlike now, the interpretation of any given title would differ quite a bit between editions. Astute readers knew that for quality they could rely on certain publishers, like Aldus Manuzio of Venice, more so than on others; in fact, applicants for permission to publish already extant texts often cited the need for a corrected version due to errors in earlier ones. The skills developed to recognize a quality book have remained pretty constant, although we may now be more easily fooled by slick cover designs. As for quality publishers, education and experience helps us prioritize university presses and peer-reviewed journals while also forming the critical skills to evaluate other types of sources.
When it comes to knowing if a book is reliable, we’re not doing too badly. So why can’t we apply similar tactics to websites? We can, both in terms of written and visual content. Students and researchers can take advantage of the opportunity to evaluate both the qualification of the author of a site and the correctness of its content through cross-reference. They can assume that, until further notice, they may only cite known authorities. Meanwhile, the casual browser searching for information on how to store tulip bulbs may find the information provided by a range of site types to be perfectly logical and thus acceptable regardless of author bias and qualification. Enforcing our evaluative capacities, like the book-buyer, the “surfer” learns to instantaneously read graphic cues that help differentiate and qualify the information provided. We can now easily distinguish a corporate website from a personal blog by the cleanliness of its layout, choice of font, and lack of animated GIFs on busy backgrounds. And while the internet regularly evolves to provide us with new information within new design templates, in the end those templates aren’t all that different from the textual versions that preceded them. Our experience with books, newspapers, and magazines has prepared us with interpretative codes for the visual and informational onslaught of the internet.
All this information makes us want to control it in some way. Two of the issues we currently face are control of moral content and protection of authorship. Not surprisingly, sixteenth-century Italians had the same problems. Print widely spread lascivious, anti-Christian, low grade reading like Ovid’s Metamorphosis, the Arthurian Romances, and Boccaccio’s Decameron – oh how our standards have changed! Savonarola begged Florentines to burn their copies of these books back in 1497. Some decades later, in a speech given in Perugia in 1567, Giuliano de’ Ricci blamed the printing press for filling the world with the licentious books that ended up on the Index of Prohibited Books of 1559.[iii] While our predecessors tried to remove offensive books from the market through censorship, modern society’s free speech prohibits this, relying thus upon social pressure and correct judgment on the part of consumers. Technology, however, assists us by electronically shielding our web-browsing eyes from the pornographic content that the majority of society considers inappropriate.
Beyond protecting consumers, we also face the problem of protecting producers, a concept that derives from an inherently modern corporate model of production and revenue that began during the Renaissance. The German printmaker and painter Albrecht Dürer was mightily pissed when the young Italian engraver Marcantonio Raimondi ripped off his woodcuts of the Life of the Virgin in 1506, just one year after their production. In the ensuing litigation, which was one of the earliest “copyright trials,” Marcantonio was prohibited from using Dürer’s signature on his own works, but not from reproducing the images. Dürer issued a second edition of his prints in 1511 with a nasty warning to “envious thieves of the work and invention of others,” demonstrating his proprietary sense of authorship in a world that did not respect it.[iv] Artists today in visual, audio, and written fields copyright their work and expect fair retribution for its sale. The law is on their side, which is why iTunes is booming and Napster is dead.
But technology twins multiple resources with ease of production, resulting in a difficult to enforce grey area with one stunning advantage: both the printing press and the internet encourage creative, interactive forms of reception that range from personalization to reappropriation.
Interaction and intervention
The internet offers seemingly new opportunities for the personalization of information. You can subscribe to a news aggregator or personalize your Google homepage at the click of your mouse, thus guaranteeing that you get what you want and eliminate the superfluous. Pre-digital consumers had similar desires that they resolved with less technological but more active solutions. Some literate men of the Renaissance approached printed images with an eye to pasting them into manuscripts either as embellishments or as illustrations, as was the case with the notary Jacobo Rubieri in the 1470s and 80s (see photo: Biblioteca Oliveriana, Pesaro).
Furthermore, early modern readers aggregated information in commonplace books, a collection of notes on readings kept under category headings for quick reference and later re-use or quotation. Sometimes these books were published in print, which rather defeated the educational purpose of compiling one yourself. By the seventeenth century, some other types of printed books specifically indicate their fitness to be chopped up and reconstituted into commonplace books, like A Brief Method of the Law, Being an Exact Alphabetical Disposition of all the Heads Necessary for a Perfect Common-Place. Printed in this Volume for the conveniency of Binding with Common-Place-Books (London: Richard and Edward Atkins, 1680).[v] Readers who cut up text and categorized information in loci communes trained themselves in the highly regarded practises of recognition, quotation, and imitation.
It’s only a small step from commonplace book to Creative Commons, the less restrictive copyright license that helps identify works available “for free and legal sharing, use, repurposing, and remixing” by an active public (http://creativecommons.org). While certain artists like Dürer and various early publishers must have lamented the economic loss (as well as artistic damage) of a lack of copyright control, the age of the printing press was by definition an age of copying that not only accepted but encouraged creative reappropriation of printed text and image. Sixteenth-century artists frequently cited each other through stylistic or more direct means, and audiences enjoyed feeling clever when they identified these references.
The greatest master of Renaissance cut and paste is the maiolica artist Xanto Avelli da Rovigo, active in Urbino from 1530-42. His skillfully painted plates successfully adapt elements from multiple sources, re-combined to create new meaning. A large plate of 1531 depicting the Innondazione del Tevere now in the Civiche Raccolte d’Arte Applicata di Milano would, in fact, have been recognized by contemporaries as a humorous re-presentation in classical guise of some very smutty prints designed by Giulio Romano, cut by Marcantonio Raimondi, and explicated verbally by Pietro Aretino.
The original engravings of twenty explicit sexual positions, called I Modi, were successfully purged by papal decree in 1525. A daring Venetian printer ignored the threat of death in order to produce the surely lucrative clandestine volume illustrated with woodcuts that comes down to us today. Two figures in the foreground of Xanto’s plate are clearly extracted from the composition that illustrates Sonetto Terzo: the man on the left thrusts into a void as his sexual partner lies separately in empty receipt at the base of the orange column at the right. The thin veil of classical subject matter and the more controlled audience of the maiolica plate (versus the wider distribution of print) allowed Xanto to totally flaunt his references, while the owner of this plate must have gotten a kick out of the fact that he could get away with displaying this splendidly coloured, remixed lascivia in his home.
Renaissance consumers really appreciated – and paid for – works in a recombinant or derivative style, and artists working in this mode were praised, not punished. Xanto read obscure Latin texts which he cited proudly in his art, and was in close contact with the Duke of Urbino, for whom he wrote a long collection of ingratiating sonnets. Maestro Giorgio Andreoli, another important maiolica artist who often copied motifs from Marcantonio Raimondi, was praised by Pope Leo X as “an excellent master in the art of maiolica and without equal in it… whose work brings honour to the city, lord and people of Gubbio…”.[vi] In 2004, Danger Mouse’s recombinant Grey Album encouraged a lawsuit, but was also called “ingenious” by Rolling Stone.[vii] Well, ingenio, along with invenzione, is perhaps the highest praise available to a work of art in the language of early modern art criticism.
Have we finally evolved, or digressed, to the point that we can again appreciate intelligent re-use and reappropriation of motifs? Like Xanto Avelli, mashup artist Girl Talk (Greg Gillis) “blurs the boundary between creator and consumer,” and his audience, recognizing each citation, “Diggs it”.[viii] This audio example is the poster child for remix approaches in various media in the film RiP! A Remix Manifesto, a documentary about the practise of mash-up that also encourages viewers to actively participate in its re-production.[ix]
While we currently laud the interactive nature of the internet, which allows every person to feel involved to a certain degree through commenting, producing, or remixing, these examples from the past put our experience into historical context. It would be tempting to say, at the expense of printed text, that internet is the technology with greatest potential for human interaction. But the way we treat the book, the newspaper, the printed informative flyer of today is a result of twentieth-century individualism and commodification that has almost entirely overridden earlier centuries’ understanding of this medium as a point of encounter, development, and creativity. Get out your scissors, your journal, your wordpress blog; by remixing your multi-media, you participate in the past, present, and future.
(sorry, despite my best coding efforts, the links don’t actually work.)
[ii] This and the quotations that follow are drawn from Brian Richardson, “The Debates on Printing in Renaissance Italy,” Anatomie Bibliologiche (Firenze: Olschki, 1999).
[iii] Richardson 1999, p. 146.
[iv] See Alexandra M. Korey, “Creativity, Authenticity, and the Copy in Early Print Culture” in Paper Museums (University of Chicago, 2005), pp. 31-50; and Lisa Pon, Raphael, Dürer, and Marcantonio Raimondi. Copying and the Italian Renaissance Print (Yale University Press, 2004), p. 39.
[vi] Patricia Collins, “Prints and the Development of istoriato”, pp. 224, 312.
[viii] Larry Hardesty, “Bootleg Battle Lines” in Technology Review, Feb 2009, p. 70. (Available online: http://www.technologyreview.com/communications/21843/)
[ix] Written about at www.wired.com/underwire/2009/05/brett-gaylor-talks-rip-remix-manifesto/. Download and purchase at www.ripremix.com,marcantonio, prints