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nettime: The Unstamped Press and the 'Net


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   Controlling Dissemination Mechanisms: The Unstamped Press and the 'Net

                    Marc Demarest (demarest@hevanet.com)

  The Printing-press may be strictly denominated a Multiplication Table as
  applicable to the mind of man. The art of Printing is a multiplication of
mind, [and] pamphlet-vendors are the most important springs in the machinery
                                 of Reform.

               Carlile, on the unstamped press in the 1820s.
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Information technology appears to be historically unprecedented, in large
measure because people deeply involved in information technology tend to
have no personal sense of history, no formal training in history, and a
strong desire to believe the problems they grapple with are unique and

If you consider the 'Net -- or the Web, if you prefer -- as a dissemination
mechanism, a machine for moving knowledge, as

   * a new dissemination mechanism
   * constantly expanding to fill the space available to it
   * without much in the way of rules, or canons or agreed-upon standards
   * increasingly accessible to the citizenry
   * threatening to both:
        * established dissemination mechanisms (the media, the educational
        * the government

     precisely because it is new and without any central control mechanism,
     any single point of failure

then it is quite clear that we have been here before.

What I want to suggest is that the 'Net is only the most recent example of a
dissemination mechanism to (a) catch on, (b) become ubiquitous, (c) pose
major problems for older, more established dissemination mechanisms, (d) be
actively opposed by the state and other institutions and (e) win in the end.

I further want to suggest that we can tell, more or less, what will happen
with contemporary problems like the Exon Act, the point of presence/ISP tax
initiative, and the threat posed by the 'Net to traditional education by
looking at analogies in earlier dissemination mechanisms.

Culture as Dissemination

Throughout human history, there have been such mechanisms: systems for
moving knowledge from place to place. Roman imperialism was, to some extent,
about co-opting and connecting local dissemination mechanisms, and the Roman
Empire survived only so long as a Celtic manuscript or a Norse battle tactic
could enter the system in Britain and appear in Rome or Carthage. The
Arabian cultures that "carried off" Western knowledge at the beginning of
the "Dark Ages" (dark, after all, because the light of knowledge had been
withdrawn from the West) was simply a dissemination mechanism into which the
West was not tapped, which it could not draw from effectively. The monastic
system was, for quite a while, the only dissemination mechanism left to hold
the West together, and its rules of entry and participation were
exclusionary in the extreme.

The Renaissance was, at some level, the reconnection of the weak
dissemination mechanism of the West with more robust mechanisms elsewhere:
the Asiatic and Arabic merchants trading into the Italian states brought
with them connections back into the Arabic dissemination mechanisms, which
contained what were in many ways superior Western knowledge bases: think,
for example, of the effect that the rediscovery of Vetruvius' work on
architecture had on Renaissance designers and artisans.

By the middle of the 1700s, there was, for all intents and purposes, a
single dissemination mechanism -- print media -- that covered the globe from
the American colonies at the edge of the Western world to the Indian
colonies and the "outposts of progress" in the Far East. Thomas Jefferson
translates the works of the French Ideologues who are themselves reading
Germans and Italians who are reading the Indian sacred texts and Chinese
philosophical tracts: all linked together via the book, which is the package
produced by the dissemination mechanism of the "civilized world": the press.

The Print Dissemination System

At this time -- the mid-1700s -- we are still a long way away from the book
as we understand it today. At this time, books are written by authors, and
printed in quires by printers who must purchase a license from the
appropriate authorities (see John Milton's Areopagitica for a view of the
dangers of press licensing -- "Truth needs no licensings to make her
victorious. Who ever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open
encounter?"). These unbound quires are sold under subscription or over the
counter at the printers' to individuals who take the unbound quires to their
bookbinders and have them bound to match the other volumes in their
libraries. Diderot's famous Encyclopedia (the quintessential work of the
late French Enlightenment, one of the beginnings of "modern thought") was
printed in an edition of only 4250 copies, a huge press run for the time.
William Godwin's Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), perhaps the
seminal radical philosophical tract of the late Enlightenment, made him
"instantly famous" according to contemporary commentators, yet its entire
press run was well under 1000 copies. People whose personal books were
numbered in the few hundreds of volumes were considered to have huge
libraries. There were virtually no "public points of presence" for this
dissemination mechanism: no public libraries, no private for-fee lending
libraries to speak of, no book clubs, no reading societies.

The point: very few people, numerically, were tapped into this dissemination
mechanism in any useful way, very few people fed the machinery, and the
state -- in the form of licenses and inspectors -- kept the dissemination
mechanism under close surveillance. Suppression, a countermeasure against
dissemination that is present in some form whereven dissemination mechanisms
appear, was a common practice on the part of the state; remember, for
example, that many of the seminal works of the American Revolution -- Thomas
Paine's Common Sense: Addressed To The Inhabitants Of America for example --
were suppressed by the British government: presses were broken up, type
confiscated, quires burned, printers' licenses revoked.

At the end of the 1700s, a fundamental shift in the culture was under way.
The fundamental drivers were:

   * changes in press technologies: the wooden press was limited by its
     fundamental instability to small press runs; type had for the most part
     to be cut by hand by people skilled in the jewelry trade or some
     related discipline; illustrations were a laborious hand-crafted process
     (see William Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell or any of Hogart's
     famous etchings for 18th century novels) and paper had to be
     manufactured by hand at great expense. Between 1796, when Senefelder
     discovered lithography (which eliminated the need for a raised printing
     surface for illustrations) and the 1820s, when the first British
     publishers produced "trade press books" (books bound by the publisher
     for sale to unknown but imagined "consumers"), the technology of
     printing changed completely. Iron bed and frame presses replaced the
     wooden press en masse beginning in the late 1700s. Frederich Koenig
     figured out how to tap the new mechanical power sources and run a press
     off them at a speed of 800 sheets per hour, roughly 20 times the output
     of a manual press: from 1814 on, the London Times was printed by power
     press. The Fourdrinier paper-making machine, initially developed by
     Nicholas Robert, allowed paper to be made and fed directly into the
     power press as it ran. And most importantly, perhaps, stereotyping was
     perfected, and, for the first time, moveable type did not have to be
     kept in frames to reprint books. Instead, a wax impression was made of
     the moveable set type, an iron cast taken from the wax impression, and
     the original type broken up and redistributed. This reduced the
     investment any printer/publisher had to make in moveable type (which
     was expensive) and allowed for three things: longer press runs, since
     stereotypes were more durable than set moveable type, reprints of
     successful books (since the publisher did not have to incur the cost of
     retypesetting the book in order to print it), and larger catalogs,
     since a publisher could keep a book in the catalog without keeping
     precious type framed up for the text.

   * changes in literacy: in the wake of the French Revolution, various
     institutions -- the Anglican Church and the Dissenting religious
     movements throughout Europe prominent -- decided that the only way to
     prevent the "infection" of domestic populations by the disease of
     Radicalism was to make them literate. Richard Altick, the leading
     historian of the literarcy phenomenon in the UK, writes that the
     prevailing beliefe was that "If, however, the millions could be herded
     into classrooms, if only for a brief time, they could be permanently
     immunized against Jacobinism, radicalism, subversion, blasphemy,
     atheism, and every other ill to which they were exposed by the east
     wind of social change. Their native reason, however crude and
     untutored, could be depended upon to accept the truths of religion and
     society as laid down before them by the superior classes..." [1].
     Literacy -- the ability to make sense of the printed word -- was, we
     need to remember, the key to enter the dissemination mechanism: one had
     to be able to read to tap into the machine. We don't have any really
     good data on literacy levels in, say, the UK, for the period 1780-1830
     (remember that statistics, called "political arithmetic" for a lot of
     the 19th century, was invented as a science in the late 1700s, and was
     not practiced reliably until the second half of the 19th century), but
     here is a swag. In 1814, there were roughly 17 million people in the UK
     (England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales). 1.5 million of these were
     either upper- or upper-middle class, where the literacy rate was 75% or
     better. 2.8 million were shopkeepers or small farmers, with a literacy
     rate of 1 in 3 to 1 in 4. Roughly 12 million were "mechanics, artisans,
     meanials, servants, paupers and vagrants" a class with a literacy rate
     of perhaps 1 in 20. By 1850, if we were to look at those same classes,
     we would find literacy rates of around 90% for the upper/upper-middle
     classes, 75% for the skop-keeping/small-farmer class, and 50% for the
     "lower classes". More importantly, the size of each band has grown
     substantially creating by 1850 or so what Wilkie Collins, the popular
     novelist, called "the unknown public," a reading culture that bought
     his books in the tens of thousands.

   * changes in transportation: remember that the book and the newspaper and
     the magazine, the fundamental dissemination units of the print system,
     were very fragile and didn't handle transportation well. In 1750, it
     took 12 days to get a book from London to Edinburgh, by horse or mail
     coach; in 1830, the same book traveled from London to Edinburgh in 46
     hours (2+ days); in 1850, the book reached Edinburgh in as little as 13
     hours by train. At the same time, the places one could send anything
     directly expanded greatly as the rail system nosed its way into
     increasingly "small" places throughout Europe (and later the US). This
     allowed the dissemination mechanism to set itself up everywhere. A key
     feature of this increasing ubiquity of the dissemination mechanism was
     the circulating library, a private library that allowed mechanics and
     artisans to pay a smallish fee and "check out" books from the library,
     or have them sent to them wherever they were.The first of these
     appeared in 1817 (serving working men) and the big circulating
     libraries -- particularly Mudies -- virtually controlled the book trade
     by mid-century; if your novel didn't get picked up by Mudies, you were
     not likely to make any money. Free libraries began to appear in the
     second half of the 19th century and were ubiquitous by the end of the
     century. All this because, ultimately, books could be built better,
     built faster (by press and publishing technologies) and moved farther
     faster in larger quantities (by transportation and franchising

So, in 1780 we had a dissemination mechanism limited in material to what
could be produced on hand-operated wooden presses with set moveable type,
limited in scope to the major capitals of the Western world by a crude
transportation system that prevented the mass transport of printed matter,