Will the Web fundamentally change human civilization? Or is almost-free publishing (for those who have something to say, who have time and skill to write, and who have network facilities) plus almost-instantaneous access to information (for those who know how, and where, to find it) merely a quantitative, not a qualitative, shift --- important on the margin, but not radically new? Did the real earthquake happen more than 500 years ago?
In Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame Book V Chapter 2 is titled "This Will Destroy That". Hugo tells how human history, pre-Gutenberg, was written in its buildings: huts and temples, pyramids and pagodas, tombs and towers. Now (as of the Fifteenth Century) he argues that the printing press and its products have taken over the rôle of recording knowledge. Faster, cheaper, more democratic --- and, with widespread proliferation of books, far more imperishable than architecture. Hugo says, "The invention of printing is the greatest event of history." True? Chapter 2 concludes with a summary of his thesis:
Thus, to put it shortly, mankind has two books, two registers, two testaments: Architecture and Printing; the Bible of stone and the Bible of paper. Doubtless, in contemplating these two Bibles, spread open wide through the centuries, one is fain to regret the visible majesty of the granite writing, those gigantic alphabets in the shape of colonnades, porches, and obelisks; these mountains, as it were, the work of man's hand spread over the whole world and filling the past, from the pyramid to the steeple, from Cheops to Strassburg. The past should be read in these marble pages; the books written by architecture can be read and reread, with never-diminishing interest; but one cannot deny the grandeur of the edifice which printing has raised in its turn.
That edifice is colossal. I do not know what statistician it was who calculated that by piling one upon another all the volumes issued from the press since Gutenberg, you would bridge the space between the earth and the moon --- but it is not to that kind of greatness we allude. Nevertheless, if we try to form a collective picture of the combined results of printing down to our own times, does it not appear as a huge structure, having the whole world for foundation, and the whole human race for its ceaselessly active workmen, and whose pinnacles tower up into the impenetrable mist of the future? It is the swarming ant-hill of intellectual forces; the hive to which all the golden-winged messengers of the imagination return, laden with honey. This prodigious edifice has a thousand storeys, and remains forever incomplete. The press, that giant engine, incessantly absorbing all the intellectual forces of society, disgorges, as incessantly, new materials for its work. The entire human race is on the scaffolding; every mind is a mason. Even the humblest can fill up a gap, or lay another brick. Each day another layer is put on. Independently of the individual contribution, there are certain collective donations. The eighteenth century presents the Encyclopædia, the Revolution the Moniteur. Undoubtedly this, too, is a structure, growing and piling itself up in endless spiral lines; here, too, there is confusion of tongues, incessant activity, indefatigable labour, a furious contest between the whole of mankind, an ark of refuge for the intelligence against another deluge, against another influx of barbarism.
It is the second Tower of Babel.
So does that put the Web into a better context? Is what we're now experiencing just a step or two more along the road that Victor Hugo identified in the move from the building to the book And is the noise of the 'Net only an increment (though perhaps an order-of-magnitude worse) to the pandemonium that the printing press has already brought us?
Friday, February 02, 2001 at 14:42:32 (EST) = Datetag20010202