Alex S. Jones, lecturer on the press and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, recently spoke to Harvard alumni in Seattle, and he pointed out that the invention of the printing press presaged 150 years of war, upheaval, turmoil, and anti-scientific sentiment. He then compared the Internet to the printing press and presented the possibility that another century and a half of upheaval is on its way.
Centuries after its introduction, it’s easy to overlook the turmoil caused by the printing press when it was first introduced. Rather than use the printing press to increase the spread of, say, scientific papers written in the then lingua franca of Latin, the original mass publishers “used the technology to make people stupider,” Jones contends.
The clear implication is that our own “Gutenberg moment” is nigh; that the ability for anyone to publish anything may send society into a protracted decline from which it may take decades or centuries to recover. Based on ample evidence of stupidity in the public sphere fueled by the Web, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that the downward spiral has already commenced.
Jones didn’t offer any precise forecasts for how that might unfold in practice or prescriptive advice for how to cope, except to recommend that we recognize we’re in the midst of an historic shift, that we attempt to preserve our values throughout that shift, and that we talk to one another about what we might do to counteract the negative trends that may arise.
The relevant questions for Enterprise Efficiency readers: Should IT professionals prepare their enterprises for 150 years of turmoil? If so, how?
The answer to the first question is obviously yes. That’s part of your job, to prepare for turmoil. That’s why the practices of disaster recovery, business continuity, and information security were invented.
But how do you defend against stupid? What if your biggest customer temporarily votes itself out of business, or on a whim stops paying its creditors? What if continued unemployment translates into higher levels of protectionism, leading to economic decline? What if populist reprisals against “banksters” lead to severely contracted domestic credit availability?
What if word leaks that a secret government agency has a pipeline into your customer records, and now nobody outside of the country wants anything to do with your online services? What if real gangsters successfully launder their ill-gotten gains into the above-board economy, turning legitimate companies into subsidiaries of criminal enterprises?
These are just a few examples of the stupid outcomes that can happen (or have happened) when people and politics turn sour on business.
Yet IT doesn’t have to just sit and watch. CIOs can have an important advocacy role in pushing for a healthier education system, the core requirement for a participatory democracy. The more informed the citizenry, the better answers we’ll get to some of these very challenging “what if” questions.
The technology industry already clamors for more IT training in the schools. A more strategic investment would be a greater investment in education in civics, political science, and economics -- and the humanities and liberal arts in general.
I can envision a curriculum that puts our present situation into an historical context. We should show young people that they’re not the first generation to be born into an age with technology changing the world around them, and that Gutenberg’s contemporaries also found themselves in a much broader conversation than they had known previously.
With a broader perspective, we can combine what we’ve learned from history, what we know about today, and where technology can take us tomorrow. We need to give students the intellectual tools to spot the dangers and avoid 150 years of turmoil, so that we may gain consensus on a way forward.
Do you see our Gutenberg moment approaching? What do you think we can do about it?