In the Spirit of Gutenberg: Blogs and the Democracy of Ideas

By Lyle Bateman
Contributing Writer, [GAS]

Johannes GutenbergFrom a perspective of some six centuries later, it’s pretty easy to see the revolution inherent in the idea of movable type and the printing press. Once a hugely expensive endeavor confined to the scriptoriums of only super-wealthy patrons, book production was suddenly a fraction of the cost.

Books, once highly valued original works of art, could now be copied en-masse… once the valued property only of the rich, the printing press brought books, language, and learning within reach of the masses. The first printing press was to books and literature what the first assembly line was to Ford and automobiles… the means to mass-produce what was once a unique work of art. Through that mass production, the democracy of ideas took a huge step forward.

It’s always dangerous to talk about current technology in such sweeping, grandiose ways. With things like the printing press, we have the luxury of hindsight to guide our analysis, but current technology is a more tenuous matter. Yet, over the past few years, a technology-based phenomenon has been spreading through the Internet, a phenomenon that perhaps speaks as fundamentally to the marketplace of ideas as the printing press.

If one of the main things we got from movable type was the ability to move scholarship and ideas to more and more people, then the huge rise of weblogs over the past few years is certainly achieving the same goal. Through software like Movable Type, WordPress, and others, combined with open-source Web servers and ubiquitous internet connections in the western world, the act of publishing is slowly moving out of the concentrated hands of a few, and into the hands of everyone.

This not a debate about the end of books, but rather about a change in the way ideas can be distributed. With online Web services like WordPress.com, blogspot.com and others offering free blogs to anyone with an Internet connection, knowledge of servers and domain names isn’t even necessary… anyone with something to say can have a platform to say it very easily and conveniently.

Even just a decade ago, presenting ideas to a mass market was concentrated in the hands of a very few, relatively speaking. Ironically, the same mass-production that served to bring books and ideas to masses, over time mutated into an industry that limited the amount of input from the masses and thereby limited their participation in the marketplace of ideas to observers.

For good or for bad, blogs have changed all that. Anyone with something to say can find a voice on the Web if they want it. Finding your audience is a bit trickier perhaps, but people with something to say, and who say it well, typically find people to listen, as well. No longer is there a huge publishing cost, editors, or marketers involved in publishing your ideas to mass audience. Through blogs, the marketplace of ideas finally becomes a truly immersing experience for anyone who wants to participate.

Of course, that opens up a series of problems, along with the opportunities. Some of the services the publishing industry provides are editing, quality control, and filtering. Blogs are unfiltered and often unedited, which certainly opens us to the possibility of bad information and poor quality. But one of the tricky parts of quality control, especially in something as tenuous as ideas, is that we all have a different notion of what constitutes good quality. In the publishing industry, much of that quality selection goes on behind the scenes, outside the control of the public, except through their buying habits… with blogs, readers can seek out their own choices, and set their own standards of quality.

It’s always difficult to predict what the future will hold… check out some of the posts over at Modern Mechanix for proof of that… but it seems clear that for the moment, blogs are changing the way we exchange ideas.

Back in the 15th century, Johannes Gutenberg moved the printed word and ideas out of the hands of the privileged few, and closer to the hands of the general public. Now, in the first part of the 21st century, blog systems like WordPress are allowing more and more people not only to share the ideas of a few published writers, but of anyone who feels they have something to say. The printing press gave the ideas of the select few to the general public, but blogs allow the general public to exchange ideas directly. If that’s not a step forward in the democracy of ideas, I don’t know what might be.

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