The Internet Is More Powerful Than the Printing Press
I know—you don't want to think it's true, but it's true.
Okay, so I know this is going to feel like a bad-opinion hot take, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time
The internet is the most consequential technological advancement in human history.The most common retort to this hot take of mine is, "Yeah but the printing press. I mean it paved the pay for the Protestant Reformation and put books in the hands of the masses.” I’m a Protestant and I love books—I literally work in Christian publishing—so I get it. But it the printing press cannot seriously be considered more powerful the internet.
Saying the printing press is more powerful and revolutionary than the internet is like saying the horse is a more revolutionary vehicle than the car or the jet plane. It sounds quaint and thoughtful, but it doesn't really make much sense.
At their cores, the printing press and the internet are communications technologies with the purpose of connecting two people so that they can transfer information. Of course both technologies are more than this, but this is a lowest common denominator that they share. The internet is the printing press but with its products delivered at, almost literally, light speed, which makes it more powerful.
If the shared goal or lowest common denominator of the internet and the printing press is to facilitate communication between parties, a case can easily be made that the printing press is more healthy in some sense because it comes with fewer frills, algorithms, and distractions than the internet. Brilliant thinkers like Neil Postman would make such an argument, and I would be inclined to agree, at least to some extent.
Likewise, communicating in print offers a sort of distance between the communicators that can make for better, clearer, and perhaps less emotive communication than when we can communicate instantaneously, which presents a number of challenges in its own right. But the effect that accompanies the speed of the internet outweighs the obvious drag of the internet as a communications technology when considering its power. In the same way that driving a car is more dangerous and lethal than riding a horse, driving a car is still more powerful and efficient in fulfilling the telos it shares with riding horseback: getting from one place to another.
We could debate all day about whether or not the printing press or the internet is "better" or “more pure”—maybe we shouldn't communicate at light speed—but there's no question that the speed (and accessibility) of the internet make it more powerful as a technology.
Let’s not treat the internet as some cultural sideshow reserved for influencers and teenagers. It’s the most powerful technology that has ever been in the hands of billions of humans. It can cause great harm at lightning speeds if we treat it like a toy. As I’ve written before, what we do and who we are on the internet is real life.
We may not have technological and social connection capabilities implanted into our brains (yet) but our phones and the internet we browse on them are very much technological extensions of the self. They are part of us. And how we use them matters.
Unless one considers the discovery of penicillin as a technological advancement, in which case that would probably have to take the crown here.
Only my second article here, but really, really bad take.
It is not how much more "powerful" something is that determines the impact. By definition, more recent advances will be more powerful, but usually less impactful, because they are iterative improvements.
Yes, jets are more powerful than cars, for example. But the car (and the train previously) caused a far more profound change for humanity compared to what they had before.
In the case of the internet...where is the revolution? It is basically a porn and entertainment delivery device, an iterative improvement on existing entertainment options. But not that transformational, at all.
Society was massively changed by the printing press, and the Industrial Revolution. We have an easier way to buy junk, and more entertainment options. That's it.
I think this is correct! The social internet is a step change from the printing press. It lowered transaction costs of communication to near zero. However, they may be similar in how they felt in society at the time. The press broke down the authority structures by individualizing knowledge dissemination and absorption. The internet is doing similar things today after we got used to the world of the press. I think the "feeling" (best word I have) is probably very similar until we settle in to whatever "normal" is in the next 100-300 years.