Computers Versus Printing Press

David Kellog recently posted to the Extended Mind Culture and Activity listserv that printing press transformed language more than the computer. I disagree. Rather than explain using just words I “atomized” and confused the work by remixing in pesky images with the email thread.

Any emphasis is mine.

In a recent interview, Chomsky was asked how computers would transform
language. He scoffed a little, and remarked that he didn’t think they
would, at least not nearly as much as printing presses did. I am inclined
to attribute this view to Chomsky’s general anti-developmentalism, but on
reflection, it occurs to me that there are three good reasons to suspect
that so far, Chomsky’s right.

First of all, the printing press made it possible to create whole
populations of literate people. The impact of computers has been much more
restricted, simply because it requires a certain capital threshold to buy
into that impact, and this threshold is denied to whole countries and to
whole sections within even the most affluent countries.



Secondly, the printing press made it possible to turn information into a
printed commodity at a moment when the creation and distribution of
commodities was a central neoformation in human productivity. The impact of
computers has been–well, largely to create and distribute commodities. But
this just isn’t a neoformation any more, and it actually has the effect of
atomizing and trivializing information in many cases,

The puny Library of Congress only holds 10 terabytes of data in 26 million books


the way that putting a poem (Here is my poems did a computer trivalize or give birth to transgenres) or even a good scientific book on a PPT atomizes and trivializes it.(Sometimes when I walk over to the stacks in the nearby library and look up

a journal article, I take a moment to marvel at how much historical
perspective–how many opportunities to learn things while looking up other
things–I lose when I simply “hunt and peck” for articles I need on the

XMCA Listserv. Networked Learning. Not Bound by Time and Space. Can Gutenberg do that?
XMCA Listserv. Networked Learning. Not Bound by Time and Space. Can Gutenberg do that?

Thirdly, and most importantly from a CHAT perspective: the priniting press
changed our unit of analysis for language in a very fundamental way:
meanings, wordings, and soundings became clearly
distinct and differentiated for the first time. There isn’t any comparable
shift in the unit of analysis for language wrought by computers.


For the illiterate, the printing press made it possible to abstract
meanings from wordings and wordings from soundings for the first time: the
distancing effect destroyed forever the illusion that words were simply
names for actual objects and forced every literate person to think in terms
of examples of concepts instead. Even for the literate, the printing press
made it possible to see wordings and even soundings as made of
interchangeable parts, and of meanings as examples of concepts that have to
be built up from soundings and wordings.

Sounds a little like….

(As an idealist, Chomsky has a good grasp of this: he often points out that
words like “river” only really refer to concepts within the mind, not to
physical objects, and the correspondence of that concept to reality is
really a coincidence and not a reflection of any kind–what he is not ready
to accept is that that coincidence is carefully set up and stage managed by
culture and history and not simply a product of evolution.)


The computer actually obscures all this, not only by bringing graphics,
sound, and text together again, This is a bad thing? but also by creating, on the semantic
plane, the illusion of a single concrete virtual reality,

when in fact all we really have are separate computers, which we can use to create that
illusion by technical rather than imaginative means.

We often think of the history of information as speeding up as it
progresses, the way life appears to a man in his late middle age. But it is
also possible to regard it as slowing down, the way life appears when we
look at a small child, or, more generally, when we consider this history
not as the creation of information but instead as the creation of potential.-David Kellog

It was fun.

7 responses on “Computers Versus Printing Press”

  1. I think that the key in this argument is that the computer is continuing to change and influence while the change brought about by the printing press has general reached an end. As such, it is easy to look back and clearly see the impact of the printing press, but very difficult for many to clearly see the rapid transformation currently going on.

    1. I think a key difference is co-existence. In essence all tools for the external storage of symbol systems have rapidly spread since the invention of writing. The window of obsolescence is just coming on much faster. In the past the more efficient tool replaced the older tool (printng press vs cunieform; word processor vs typewriter). These advancements used to take hundreds of years.

      Then now take days. Furthermore external symbol storage systems no longer supplant each other. YouTube co-exists with Twitter, which co-exists with my blog.

      It is this shift that makes me conclude the computer had a bigger impact than the printing press.

  2. Some of the images in Greg’s response to my post are somewhat unsettling
    (e.g. the black guy eating gruel?). But I think the main problem with it
    is that, like so much of the uncritical, positivistic, even
    Whiggish, celebration of the powers of computers, it doesn’t deal with the
    distinction between (essentially gradualistic) improvements in the
    instruments of production and (essentially catastrophic) changes in the
    relations of production.

    Yes, the printing press did vasty increase the number and variety of texts
    that were available to readers. But in some ways the most revolutionary
    transformation of Europe was brought about by the publication of just one
    of those titles. When Gutenberg invented the printing press, he enabled
    every thinking Christian to own a copy of the Bible. Before that moment,
    the only tangible proof of the Christian doctrine was the existence of the
    world itself; everything else had to come through the Church. Now, suddenly
    everyone had the same texts that the Church had been mediating for hundreds
    of years–and it turned out to be a set of texts much like any
    other–passages of history, long chapters of legal codifications, beautiful
    pornography in the Song of Solomon, and even individual psalms that
    combined exquisite lyricism with disgusting exhortations to genocide (Psalm

    I think that the the great struggle between Protestant and Catholic, and
    the underlying struggle between whether language–sacred or
    profane–inheres in social institutions or reflects the intrinsic
    architecture of the human mind, dates from then, and has still not been
    resolved today. But this struggle has been, at bottom, neither a struggle
    between technologies (oral vs. printed) nor between ideas (dogmatism vs.
    rationalism); it’s been a struggle between living, breathing, fightig and
    dying human beings. The grist of the struggle was ultimately
    neither technology nor theology but rather the rise and fall of the
    absolutist monarchy, and with it the last productive relations of
    the feudal order. As was recently pointed out on this list, some forms of
    primitive accumulation from absolutist times (e.g. the role of debt in
    appropriating surplus value from sectors of the population not engaged in
    commodity production) have still not disappeared.

    One of the vulgarizations in Marxism that Stalin introduced in crushing
    Trotsky to the left of himself and Bukharin to the right was to declare
    “diamat”, or “dialectical materialism” the “official philosophy” of the
    USSR, making the Soviet state the world’s first secular theocracy. In
    history, this meant the introduction of a rigid set of five stages:
    primitive communism, barbarism, feudalism, capitalism, socialism, with the
    distinction between the stages reducible to the instrumentation of
    production: as Lenin had said, the construction of socialism was to
    be essentially a matter of adding electrification to the political power of
    the democratically elected Soviets. By removing the democratically elected
    Soviets, Stalin made sure that this would be a liberal, Whiggish,
    gradualistic affair, with no underlying transformation of the relations of

    Interestingly, the same thing has happened in work by Leontiev on the
    problem of child development known as the crisis. Here’s what Vygotsky has
    to say in his lectures on the crisis which we are currently translating:

    “These ages (i.e. stable ages–DK) and this type of child development have
    been studied more completely than ages characterized by a different course
    of child development (i.e.the crisis–DK). These latter were discovered by
    empirical paths, one by one, in a haphazard manner, and many have still not
    been shown by the majority of investigators in systems and are not included
    in the general periodization of child development. Many authors have even
    doubted the evidence of the inner necessity of their existence. Many are
    inclined to take them more as “maladies” of development, as deviations of
    the process fromthe normal path, than as internally necessary periods of
    child development. Almost none of the bourgeois investigators have realized
    their theoretical signfiicance, and the attempt in our book at their
    systematization, at their theoretical interpretation, and at their
    inclusion in the general scheme of child development for this reason should
    be seen as perhaps the first attempt of this kind.”


    “These crises—the three year old crisis, the seven year old crisis, the
    adolescent crisis, the youth crisis—are always associated with a change of
    stage. They indicate in clear, obvious form that these changes, these
    transitions from one stage to another have an inner necessity of their
    own. The existence of development of crises has long been known and their
    ‘classic’ interpretation is that they are caused by the child’s maturing
    inner characteristics and the contradictions that arise on that soil
    between it andthe environment. From the standpoint of that interpretation
    the crises are, of course, inevitable, because these contraditions are
    inevitable in any conditions. There is nothing more false, however, in the
    theory of the development of the child’s psyche than this idea. In fact,
    crises are not at all inevitable accomplishments of psychic development. It
    is not the crises which are inevitable, but the turning points or breaks,
    the qualitative shifts in ddevelopment. The crisis, on the contrary, is
    evidence that a turning point or shift has not been made in time. There
    need by no crises at all if the child’s psychic development does not take
    shape spontaneously but in a rationally controlled process, controlled
    upbringing.” (pp. 398-399)

    Leontiev, A.N. (1981). Problems of the Development of the Mind. Progress:

    1. One area that the computer has made an impact, that I’m unsure is the analog in the pre-computer era of human experience, is something called trolling.

      Trolling has something of a double definition. It can be picking a fight on a list, starting a flame war, etc. This can be done in a few ways.

      There’s the overt arguing about points but never letting go and never getting to a point to agree to disagree, just seeing how far one can kick the can down the road.

      Then there’s something more covert. This is done by posting something so ridiculously in error that the gullible or those unfamiliar with the character of posters on a list (who will perform this for the spectacle as the drama unfolds of “eating popcorn” with others or by oneself), will post in earnest a reply and thusly become a target for further trolling at a later time.

      I have yet to experience that here on XMCA, but I suppose that it’s still possible that this kind of behavior which seems to be promoted by anonymity of the Internet, can happen here, though I’d hope that this list is of a higher standard. On other lists I’ve seen that this behavior is dealt with by the pat wisdom, “Don’t Feed the Trolls.” Though I’m not sure how well that serves people.

      Another, more abusive form of trolling is the caustic heinous (and therefore criminal) kind we see on platforms like Twitter, which is made by a coward who uses a sock puppet (an pseudonymous account to disguise one’s identity), to post all kinds of verbal and symbolic filth and abuse upon a targeted victim, usually women, people of color and/or LGBT folks. Famous people are also victim to this, such as Lena Dunham or Ashley Judd. Happily, I noticed that Ashley Judd is announcing that she is pressing charges upon those who recently trolled her on Twitter. Lena Dunham has just deleted her account period. Somehow both these solutions are unsatisfactory to me.

      In any case, it seems that the effect, whether for benign LOLs, or to terrifically verbally abuse another person, can only be out of a deep-seated need to humiliate another person.

      What I wonder is this: Where does this need come from? Perhaps other XMCArs can comment any hypotheses?

      The tool of the computer amplifies this psychological pathology. I can say this is one area where computers make a big difference in the quality of life for many people, if not HUGE.

      Kind regards,


    2. David,

      Thank you for the response. Never thought about the power of one book had on one continent and then the world. The Bible was used as a tool of liberation, enlightenment, slavery, power by the state, and learning. Good point.

      Though I disagree that our critical responses to power have to be verbocentric. Computers have pointed out the obvious that symbol systems used for meaning making go beyond the word.

      Lets think about the images I used:

      The first image is a very popular image in the genre of “reactionary gifs.” It is is scene from a movie involving a popular American actor and comedian. It is used as a sense of shock or surprise, and like most reactionary gifs in a very hyperbolic way.

      I see the genres and cultures that exists because of the computer to be one point for compute over the printing press.

      Reactionary gifs are just one part of many cultures that can now network online. The genre is so popular that the Speaker of the House (third in line for President in US) sent out a reactionary gif rebuttal to President Obama’s plan for free college education:

      We do our identity work in new ways because of the web. That set from The Speaker contain a famous pop star. The obvious connotation is Republican outreach to tech and youth.

      Given your points about the Bible, Martin Luther filing the world’s most famous customer complaint, and the fall of monarchy I can see you an Arab Spring and call the score 1-1.

      The second set of images played off the tortoise and hare to compare the scope and speed at which the Web spread compared to the printing press.

      The next image compares the amount of digital information stored in the library of congress versus the amount of digital information created. If we consider them both, the book and the computer, tools for external storage the computer

      A clear 2-1 in favor of computer.

      The next few images were links to either mutlimodal poems I have written or remixes of academic work. These were in relation to the ideas of how the printing press changed the unit of analysis. I think the computer requires the same rethinking. A return of non-verbocentric symbol systems.

      I must admit this is where my n00b status starts to show. I originally joined XMCA bc my ed psych program had great thinkers in the field of learning sciences, and situated cognition, but no strong Vygotsky and CHAT. So I do not have a complete understanding of linguistics to argue the unique ways of making meaning the computer has enabled.

      Instead I just do my identity and thinking production in images and sounds.

      That would leave it at 3-2.

      In your reply you argue that the printing press had a gradual effect on production and the computer a catastrophic effect. I thought the question was which had a BIGGER effect and not a BETTER effect.

      In terms of production this clearly has to be the computer. There is not one component of human activity that has not been shaped by the computer. Transportation, food production, migration patterns, shift in economic value. All of these were altered by the computer.

      Where does that the score? I wonder if it shouldn’t be the computer or the printing press at all but writing itself. It was the genesis tool of all the external storage and symbol systems.

      It has accelerated at a spectacular pace in human race. More efficient tools for writing replace less efficient ones. Paper the cunieform, printing press vs scrolls, word processor vs typewrite. n each iteration the window between releases shrunk. Then the computer. I

      Now then things changed. New tools for meaning making emerge every day that no longer supplant older tools but supplement and co-exist. Facebook, Twittter, youtube, blogs…more people are writing more words than any single point in history and this growth will not stop.

      Behind it all is a set of universal directions that render bits into symbols.

      Code is the ultimate lingua franca.

  3. with all the talk about technologies and social impacts, I rather
    thought the original question got lost: How are computer-mediated
    technologies influencing language itself. By which I think one means
    language change, and in particular, as it is by far the most used language
    online, change in the English language?

    I know there are researchers already looking into this (sorry, I don’t have
    cites on hand; google it!). But I think that this perspective does raise
    interesting parallels with the advent of printing.

    Print made a LOT more people Readers. Online communication is making a LOT
    more people Writers.

    Print slowly shifted diverse dialect-dominated languages toward
    standardized written national languages. Online communication is rapidly
    promoting the development of international flavors of English (sometimes
    called by linguists World Englishes).

    Online written communication lowers the barriers to language innovation,
    neologisms (BTW, brb, IMHO), and possibly the mixing of English with both
    vocabulary and even grammatical preferences from other languages. Online
    many people are writing English (or something like it) who are not native
    speakers and not very formally educated in the language. They are often
    writing it to other people who are similarly casual users of, call it

    The language police are present so far mainly through software which tries
    to conform what you type to some standard international Language (I have a
    few keyboard settings and they each come with automated language police). I
    see this as part of the modern battle between the interests of the
    Corporate Few (including the modern State) in uniformity and predictability
    of markets (voters) vs. the interests of the rest of us in communicating
    with as few constraints and at as low a price in time and effort as

    While not focused on online communication, Minae Mizumura’s The Fall of
    Language (poor title translation) in the Age of English, gives some
    interesting history of what happens to local languages when they fall under
    the influence of international ones. At the very least, this history
    suggests that internet Anglish is going to catalyze a LOT of language


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