The internet has made us faster than ever. But are we in fact lagging behind the opportunities presented by technology? Jeff Jarvis argues that no one foresaw the vast societal differences the printing press caused, and he thinks the internet is an even bigger, more fundamental shift. He discusses some of the potential changes that could come about as mankind continues to adapt to a new world of technology.

Written by
Jeff Jarvis
January 2012

Accepted wisdom has it that internet time moves quickly; that we are living through change at an unparalleled pace; that our modern minutes are but 10 or 20 seconds long. But what if our progress is not as speedy as it seems? What if we are only at the bare beginning of the disruption now underway?

Consider Gutenberg time. The printed book did not begin to take on its own form until 50 years after its invention. At first, printers mimicked scribes, with fonts designed to look like handwriting, while printing itself was promoted as automated writing. ‘They appear not to have perceived the printed book as a fundamentally different form,’ writes Leah Marcus in her essay Cyberspace Renaissance, ‘but rather as a manuscript book that could be produced with greater speed and convenience.’ They simply didn’t see the possibilities.

Nor do today’s media companies – not fully, not yet. Look at how they’re using the web and new platforms such as the tablet. They’re still attempting to replicate legacy forms, content, business models, industrial structures, and control: Old wine in new casks. Newspapers, magazines, and books all remain recognizable as such online.

Just as the form of the book didn’t evolve quickly, neither did society around it. Elizabeth Eisenstein, author of the definitive work on Gutenberg’s impact, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, writes, ‘One must wait a full century after Gutenberg before the outlines of new world pictures begin to emerge into view.’

John Naughton, a columnist for the Observer in London, asks us to imagine we are pollsters in 1472, 17 years after the first printed Bibles (we are only about that far away from the introduction of the commercial web ourselves). On a bridge in Mainz, we ask citizens how likely they think it will be that Gutenberg’s invention could:

a. Undermine the authority of the Catholic Church
b. Power the Reformation
c. Enable the rise of modern science
d. Create entirely new social classes and professions
e. Change our conceptions of ‘childhood’ as a protected early period in a person’s life

‘Printing did indeed have all these effects,’ Naughton states, ‘but there was no way that anyone in 1472 in Mainz (or anywhere else for that matter) could have known how profound its impact would be.’

The internet, I believe, could prove to be every bit as disruptive as the printing press, reshaping not just media – for the internet is much more than a medium – but almost every industry and social institution. Of course, there’s no way to know that for sure. Dan Gardner’s book Future Babble argues that expert predictions are uniformly worthless. But then, the very idea of an expert on the future is absurd.

The wise course is not to try to forestall change (to slow or stop it through regulation), but to accelerate it through openness and investment.

Still, we must try to imagine the edges of possibility so we can make better strategic decisions in business, technology, policy, and education. If we assume that the current disruption has already occurred at broadband speed – and so we must be nearly through it – then we will plan based on what we see around us now. But if instead we assume that ‘we ain’t seen nothin’ yet,’ then we will seek out greater disruption and unforeseen opportunities. We will protect flexibility, invention, and imagination so we may pivot as we see the future’s true shape emerge.

Indeed, we may want to hasten change. In a 1998 Rand Corporation paper, The Information Age and the Printing Press: Looking Backward to See Ahead, James Dewar argues that our information age will be marked by unintended consequences, so the sooner we recognize, embrace, and adapt to them, the better. The wise course then is not to try to forestall change (to slow or stop it through regulation), but to accelerate it through openness and investment.

So imagine that change. Start with the idea that technology leads to efficiency over growth in numerous industries. See retail: Drive down a commercial highway in America and you will pass numerous empty big-store boxes that don’t seem like they’ll ever be filled. Chain retail – invented only a century ago by The Great A&P – appears to be losing to the efficiency of internet sales and consolidated distribution. Many companies are unable to withstand the pricing transparency the net affords or bear the cost of redundant staff, real estate, and inventory. The entire supply chain is upended by disruptors from Amazon to Kickstarter.

In the delivery industry, postal services in many countries are facing devastating shrinkage as email and social communication call into question the very notion of a letter; as transactions become too inefficient and expensive to conduct on paper, as marketing finally shifts from mass mailing to targeted relevance. Yet communication flourishes.

Newspapers and magazines are struggling to adjust to a new media economy built on abundance rather than control of scarce time or space. Now news is beginning to mimic the end-to-end architecture of the net as witnesses share what they see with the world. Journalists must ask how they can continue to add value to an information flow that no longer relies solely upon them.

Health, design, marketing, finance, manufacturing, insurance, energy… Every one of these sectors is just beginning to witness the upheaval the net brings.

Government is already being disrupted, of course. Wikileaks demonstrates the folly of secrecy. The Arab Spring is unseating dictators. Icelanders are rebuilding their economically wrecked society by rewriting their constitution via Facebook comments.

But I wonder whether something even bigger is afoot: Will we rethink even our notion of nations and thus of societies? Does the net enable us to make new societies that cut across boundaries? I wonder whether that is a lesson of the hashtag revolt, #occupywallstreet; that institutions — in which we have less and less trust — are replaced by networks; that society, too, begins to mimic the architecture of the net.

Perhaps I’m going too far. But then again, perhaps I’m not going far enough.

A group of academics at the University of Southern Denmark argues that we are emerging from the other side of what they call ‘the Gutenberg parenthesis.’ Before Gutenberg, knowledge was passed mouth-to-mouth, scribe-to-scribe, changing along the way with little sense of authorship. Inside the parenthesis, with the press, knowledge became linear, permanent, more a product than a process, with clear ownership.

More than five centuries later, they say we are emerging from the other side of the parenthesis. Now knowledge is again passed along, remixed as it goes, with less sense of ownership: It’s process over product. In his upcoming book Too Big to Know, David Weinberger sketches a vision of knowledge that is too big for libraries, institutions, or our heads. ‘Knowledge is now the property of the network,’ he writes. ‘The smartest person in the room is the room itself.’

This change in our mental map of information affects our cognition of our world, the Danish academics argue. So more is changing than merely industries and institutions. Our social norms and societies are up for grabs. How we understand the world around us is evolving, and change that profound doesn’t happen quickly.