In the mid 15th century, Johanes Gutenburg invented the printing press. This invention would lead to a revolution, both technologically and culturally. In the late 20th century, computers became common household items. Combined with the Internet, computers have led to another revolution, which we are calling the digital revolution. The question that remains, however, is if the current revolution is technological, cultural, or both.
According to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, a revolution is defined as: “the forcible overthrow of a government or social order, in favour of a new system.” Based upon that definition, it is arguable if either the print revolution or the digital revolution qualifies as a revolution.
First, let’s look at the print revolution. Before Gutenburg’s printing press, books were hard to come by due to the fact that they had to be hand-scribed. During the 15th century, the printing press spread across the Holy Roman Empire (HRE) and Europe. This was a period of great social strife in Europe. Much of this strife was targeted at the Roman Catholic Church and several of its practices such as the collection of indulgences. In reaction to some of the dogma and practices of the Church, Martin Luther, a monk and theologian, wrote The Ninety-Five Theses in 1517. With the help of the printing press, Luther spread his ideas and qualms about the Church throughout the HRE. What followed is now known as the Protestant Reformation; a period when sweeping changes were brought to the Catholic Church that resulted in the separation of the Church. New Churches, or sects, within Christianity were formed, such as Lutheranism, Calvinism, and Anglicanism.
Politically speaking, the invention of the printing press led to a “forcible overthrow of a government or social order,” especially within the Church. The printing press had other effects as well. For instance, texts were now available to many citizens, and written in a language they understood as opposed to Latin. Literacy increased among the masses as a result, and many folk tales and stories that had originally been told orally were being recorded on paper and eventually run through a printing press. Ideas travelled quicker, no longer reliant upon word of mouth as their sole source of dispersal. The printing press, in many ways, brought us—the Western World—into the modern era.
From this perspective, the term “revolution” is entirely appropriate to the print revolution. Social orders were changed or overthrown. The average citizen’s life was changed, and newspapers, magazines, and books became more common and easier to access.
So, what about the digital revolution? Can we call it a revolution, or is that not quite the right term for it?
Alan Turing, a British mathematician, cryptanalyst, logician, and computer scientist, invented the Turing Machine in 1936. At first, it was simply a hypothetical idea, but it evolved into what we now know as the computer. The machine, at first, was the size of an entire room and had a tiny memory capacity—tiny only in comparison with what we have today. Over time, the machine grew smaller and by the ’80s was small enough that it could sit nicely upon a desktop. By the mid-to-late ’90s it was slowly becoming a common household item.
None of that sounds too revolutionary yet, does it? No governments or social orders were overthrown; groups of people didn’t take to the streets as an immediate result of the computer. Yet, we still call it a revolution.
Let’s jump into the 21st century. By now, computers are commonplace in households, businesses, and educational institutions—literally anywhere you can think of. However, it is not just computers spear-heading this revolution, it is the Internet—that series of tubes and wires that has the capability to connect every single person on this planet. In recent years, certain applications within the Internet, such as social media sites, have been at the centre of populist movements across the globe. Starting in Dec. of 2010, several countries in Northern Africa and the Middle East experienced civil disobedience, and in a few cases, overthrew their governments; much of these movements were facilitated, organized, and spread through social media sites such as facebook and twitter. Since Mar. 15, 2011, Syria has been undergoing a brutal civil war that has seen thousands killed.
It seems that “revolution” is an apt term. Not only have governments in Africa and the Middle East been overthrown, but we have seen protests in Canada that have been facilitated and spread through social media. The Occupy movement is a good example, as is the current and on-going “Idle No More” movement.
It is useful to keep in mind that the printing revolution took a couple centuries to conclude, or fade from importance. We are only in the early days of this digital revolution, and the future is a scary place because of it. How many more governments are to be overthrown? In how many more ways will our daily life be altered? These are the questions, I think, we should all be thinking about, discussing, as these are questions that are not going to go away anytime soon.