For reasons I really don’t understand, Congress recently invited a bunch of famous people to testify before them regarding the New Media Revolution. There, Arianna Huffington, whose eponymous Post operates by giving celebrities with nothing to say a forum in which to not say it at great length, but primarily by
stealing linking repackaging stealing content from other sites, explained said revolution thusly:
“I was not around when the printing press was invented; but if I were around I would imagine that the people dealing with stone tablets would be making a similar argument. Saying, you know, if you just left us alone and just forgot about that printing press, who could really charge you for that.”
I like how she needs to clarify that she was not personally present for the invention of the printing press, regardless of what her detractors might claim. No, she wasn’t there, thank you very much, but through the power of imagination she can transport herself there, and whilst there look down her Greek nose at the foolish fifteenth-century stone-tablet lobby.
Now, I’ll grant you that if I were in front of Congress* I’d probably babble incoherently, too. It’s clearly too much to ask of someone who knows they’re going to be testifying to work out their metaphors about technological backwardsness ahead of time. But if I were writing a book, like, say, the Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging,** I wouldn’t have much excuse for writing something like this:
You see, printed books themselves were once a rather revolutionary idea. Six hundred years ago, if people wanted to share ideas, they had few options. We could shout our complains from the barn rafters. Maybe a few chickens would hear us. We could scrawl our musings and post them in the town square–but soon the elements would take their toll. Documents were preserved, of course–medieval monks specializing in hand-copying important texts–but to justify years of a monk’s time, these documents had to be privileged indeed. Few normal people could spare five years to hand-write their stories.
Then, in mid-fifteenth century Germany, printer Johannes Gutenberg happened upon a discovery.
I also love the idea Gutenberg just “happened” upon the printing press–like, one day he was throwing some coffee grounds onto the compost heap and there it was beneath a half-eaten omelet.
I’m glad Congress called in an expert like Arianna for this one and not, say, a scholar of media history or anything. I’m so glad that I whipped up this little graphical timeline above to preserve her wisdom for the ages.
All kidding aside, though she probably doesn’t realize it, the printing press is in one way a very good analogue for the Huffington Post, just in England rather than Germany. Take William Caxton, England’s first printer. Like Arianna Huffington, he was not responsible for the invention of the technology he used. He just copied what the German Gutenberg had already pioneered. And if you look at the list of texts Caxton printed, almost all of them were the fifteenth-century equivalent of public domain texts–The Canterbury Tales, the Confessio Amantis, Aesop’s Fables, The Consolation of Philosophy, etc.–i.e., Caxton rarely had to actually pay the writers whose works he printed and sold.
If you copy the technology pioneered by others and populate it with content you don’t have to pay for, it’s easy to make money, whether in the fifteenth or the twenty-first century!
*Which I can be, through the power of my imagination. I’m there now, and Angelina Jolie is there, and she’s French kissing Dan Brown for some reason. Bad imagination, bad!
**In her defense, it should be noted that Arianna Huffington didn’t write that chapter. The ‘editors’ of the Huffington Post, of which she is one, did. She did, however, put her picture and name on the cover of the book containing that chapter.