Essay

Gutenberg’s printing press and the ability to mass produce texts not only caused a shift in production processes which started the industrial revolution, it also had a lasting impact on human cognition. The literal segmentation of language through moveable type gave rise to a cognitive segmentation that, to this day, is reflected throughout different parts of the social system, from academia to the factory. The printing press allowed for the mass production of books, and as a result, changed the way people share ideas as well as transformed the conventional wisdom about whose ideas were allowed to be heard.

During the late 1700’s, William Blake contended that the externalization of senses to new technologies caused a permanent change in the human psyche. More specifically, he claimed that the externalization of thought to the written word destroyed human capacity for imagination. Blake theorized that the interplay between the senses produced imagination and posited that, as senses were removed from that interplay, we would in turn become less imaginative. According to Blake’s theory, print at once allowed more people to become literate and caused them to become less imaginative. As a result, human creation became more mechanized, even in the realm of art and literature.

Years after, in the early 20th Century, Walter Benjamin examined the changing role of intellectuals as a result of print technology. In The Arcades Project, he wrote that “the intelligentsia sets foot in the marketplace—ostensibly to look around, but in truth to find a buyer.” Intellectuals who were once limited to the arenas of observation and quiet reflection became enveloped as part of the market. Before print, the sharing of applied knowledge was confined to a small group of elites; scholars would have their manuscripts transcribed to share with their colleagues, but this sharing was very intentional and controlled. As print technology allowed scholars to share their work more widely, their focus necessarily became less arcane and they began to act as mirrors for society. Their job became to observe and report: they observed the masses, only to produce texts that were marketed back to those very masses. More importantly, however, print allowed people outside the Academy to publish ideas of their own, marking a shift toward the democratization of knowledge.

As writers began publishing their work for a mass audience, the writing process, and in turn the thought processes that put words on the page, became more mechanized. In a sense, writing had to be crafted specifically for mass production. Standardization of spelling and punctuation became a prime concern for printers and the rigid structure of the page dictated the form of the content. Authors were forced to distill their thoughts into easily understandable parts, laying out their thoughts logically enough for readers to understand without further explanation from an absent author. Within the academy, the sharing of manuscripts was accompanied by discussion, making the need for clarity much less important than in print. This new technology forced people to construct their writing in a way that would allow it to stand alone, completely separate from its creator.

As mechanized printing processes allowed books to become the first mass produced commodity, other mechanized means of production began to appear from agriculture to the textile industry. The industrial revolution heralded the birth of the factory worker; instead of goods being produced by craftsmen and sold directly from their workshops, factory production allowed goods to be produced much more cheaply and efficiently. In his 1776 book The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith asserted that to the extent that production was divided into smaller, highly specialized jobs, productivity would increase proportionally. As production of commodities like furniture moved out of craftsmen’s workshops and into the factory, skilled labor was replaced by workers who became little more than machine operators. Instead of one person crafting each item by hand, production was reduced to such small tasks that factory workers had little skill beyond operating their specific machine, and little investment in the final product as a whole. Additionally, factories created a workplace separate from the homes of the workers which meant that non-verbal commodities also became further removed from those creating them, both cognitively and physically.

Though Blake lamented a decrease in individual imagination as print became more widespread, it allowed for collaboration between a large number of people which created its own kind of external interplay. Arguably, this external interplay was more valuable than the internal capacity for imagination alone because it acted as a vehicle for exploration beyond what had already been done. Instead of relying on their own ideas or those of a small group of colleagues, people could easily access the ideas of their peers and proceed from there.

This marked a turning point in people’s understanding of how applied knowledge is developed. Instead of being passed down from the elites, it became a collaborative endeavor—the aggregate observations of all who wished to contribute. Nowhere was this more clear than in the daily press. Rather than presenting a monolithic point of view, the daily press published a wide variety of ideas at one time. The frequency of publishing necessitated a large number of authors and at the same time, made it easy for writers to respond to the work of others and move the discussion forward.

As a result of print publishing, methods of observation and reporting began to change dramatically. Observations that scholars made about the world around them had to be translated entirely onto paper, which meant they had to find ways of describing their surroundings that would cater to the visual sense. This lead to a shift from qualitative description to quantitative analysis, eventually culminating in the development of the scientific method. This standardized method of observation required that scholars establish a new set of vocabulary to describe the world around them. They developed devices that allowed them to observe nature in a way that catered to the visual sense—taking measurements of phenomena that were not at all visual in nature and displaying the results visually.

Thermometers, for instance, were designed to measure a part of the natural world that cannot be seen and translate it into a number. The resulting figures, however, were only meaningful to those who agreed to a standardized—albeit arbitrary—system of measurement. In the United States, we take for granted that water freezes at 32°F; everywhere else in the world, water freezes at 0ºC, which makes more logical sense, but is not inherently more valid. If someone were to create a new temperature scale today, it would not be any more or less related to the natural world than the Fahrenheit or Celsius scales, yet people take for granted that these established scales can be the only authoritative forms of measurement. Over time, these abstract quantifications became conflated with the natural—people began to accept the idea that temperature is the number displayed on the thermometer, rather than acknowledging the number as merely an abstraction.

This confluence of abstract concepts with nature spread throughout other parts of the social system. Just as the literal segmentation of language into moveable type led to a segmentation in our thought, the physical separation of labor from the consumer allowed for a cognitive separation of the market from the rest of the social system. Instead of trade being a physical interaction that happened directly between the craftsman and the buyer, it became a faceless transaction. Customers would go into a showroom and place an order which would be fulfilled by an unknown number of workers that they would never see; workers assembled products with no real concern for the outcome or knowledge of who was buying them. This rift between labor and consumer allowed the market to become its own entity separate from other parts of the social system.

Following this shift, a new discipline developed to study these new mechanisms of trade and production. Economics was a departure from the traditional sciences because its object of study—the economy—was not a product of nature, yet it was treated as such. As economists began to study the economy using a scientific method, the human elements began to drop away. Instead of being a reference to the aggregate actions of firms and individuals, “the economy” turned into its own beast that could act independently while economists sit back and observe, thinking of ways to provoke it to various ends—or, in the case of Adam Smith, declaring that to intentionally interfere with market activity is to act against nature.

Smith contended that all commodities had a natural price, which could be estimated based on the average wages and profits in the region. This price, he said, was “naturally regulated” based on the natural rates of wages, profits, and rent in the society. Here we have another instance of an abstract concept becoming conflated with a natural occurrence. It is impossible for prices to arise naturally because the very idea of them relies on money, which in itself is an abstract concept developed to help mediate trade.

This sort of separation not only affected the cognitive aspects of the academy, it was also reflected in its physical manifestation. The division of colleges into departments which would then be housed in separate buildings was a direct reflection of our segmentation of thought. Furthermore, the emergence of more and more specialized fields of study continues the cycle indefinitely.

This development of new, more specific fields of study is exactly what Adam Smith theorized about the division of labor: having workers specialize in one area or confining them to one task would allow for innovation. Workers would become so familiar with their small area of expertise that they would be able to develop better, more efficient ways of working, whether out of boredom or out of a need to produce a greater output.

In many ways, this division of knowledge into different disciplines realizes Blake’s theory that the outsourcing of senses decreases their internal interplay. This time, however, the outsourcing happens in the context of the external interplay that print helped create. As fields of study become more specialized the division of colleges into departments and the geographical division of those departments into separate buildings almost directly reflects the segmentation of human perception. We now design institutions in a way that is great for collaboration within disciplines, but makes interdisciplinary discourse extremely difficult. We may have Gutenberg to thank for that.