Cultural revolution

Cultural revolution

There’s a very thoughtful piece in yesterday’s Guardian by Larry Elliott, the paper’s economics editor. In it, he explores the question of why the IT ‘revolution’ hasn’t spawned the kind of cultural upheaval which accompanied the first and second industrial revolutions. “The question is”, he writes, “whether there has been much creativity, and if not why not. Perhaps it was just a fluke that past periods of structural economic change coincided with revolutionary movements in the arts. Perhaps the old forms — the novel, the symphony and so on — have been pushed as far as they can be”.

One possibity he considers is what one might call the Robert Gordon Hypothesis. Gordon is the economist who has argued that the so-called ‘IT revolution’ is pretty tame stuff compared with the upheavals caused by steam, electricity, motor and air transport, movies, radio and indoor plumbing.

This may be right, but there is another possibility, namely that Elliott is looking on too short a time span.

Suppose, for example, that the Web turns out to be as radical a transformation in our communications ecology as the invention of printing. As a mass phenomenon, the Web is now 11 years old. Gutenberg’s first bible was printed in 1455 in the German city of Mainz.

Now try this thought experiment: it’s 1466 and you are a MORI pollster standing with your clipboard on a street, doing an opinion survey on the town’s residents.

Q1: Who is Johannes Gutenberg? Is he
(a) a butcher,
(b) a baker,
(c) a candlestick maker or
(d) a printer?
[Eh? What’s a ‘printer’?]

Q2. Which of the following effects do you think printing by moveable type will have?
(a) Undermining of the authority of the Catholic Church
(b) The rise of Protestantism?
(c) The emergence of ‘science’
(d) The Romantic Movement
(e) The redefinition of ‘childhood’ as a period in life before young people become regarded as ‘adults’. Tick all that apply.

You get the point. the invention of printing had all of these world-transforming effects, and more. But eleven years into the revolution, nobody could have foreseen them. My feeling is that the same may apply to the revolution that is underway now. The ground is shifting under our feet, but we cannot see it. The cultural impact of the IT revolution, in other words, will be visible only in retrospect.