From Gutenberg to Google

Mrs M McConaghy, Deputy Principal

The technological marvel that drove the first Renaissance was the mechanised phonetic script realised in the Gutenberg printing press. It allowed books to become available to those beyond the Latin-familiar, literate elite.  Copies of the Bible and Latin and Greek Classics became available to a wider audience. Theoretically, a broader aspirational class, if not exactly the ‘common man,’ could read arguments and ideas personally and draw personal, rather than officially mediated, conclusions. Today’s nearest exemplar of a comparably revolutionary phenomenon is the Internet. This digital Gutenberg has rendered access to voluminous information and global communications instant — and has done so with more democratic universality than the original.   Canadian futurist Donald Tapscott  coined the term “disintermediation” in the mid 1990s to describe how new technologies facilitate direct access to the sources of information, services or goods in the same way Gutenberg’s press allowed the ‘masses’ to access scholarly ideas.  Tapscott’s ponderous neologism — translation: cutting out the middle man — is simplistic in 2012, with its online pay-walls, corporatised websites, ubiquitous advertising and colonisation by traditional emporiums of commerce.  Far from being made redundant, middle men and mediators have simply moved online. Nevertheless, the Internet and its familial issue — super-phones and killer apps being only the most conspicuous and pop-culturally consequential — have indeed had the impact of tectonically shifting history’s trajectory.  The result is an ensemble of possibilities, hitherto unimagined realities, breakthroughs in perception, revolutions in communication and a triumphalism both good and bad that calls to mind for many the historical Renaissance — with its complexities, chaotic dynamism, ambitions, fecundity and Rumsfeldian unknown unknowns resembling the fantastic sketch books of Leonardo da Vinci.

The late Marshall McLuhan, renowned Canadian essayist of culture and “prophet of the electronic age”, believed the key development that led to the Renaissance was not just the availability of the ideas contained in ancient texts hitherto inaccessible to the masses, but a shift in emphasis from the formal study of logic to a renewed emphasis on rhetoric and language.  He argued that the emergence of print culture in the middle of the fifteenth century fundamentally altered the very nature of society and human culture. What arose was a predominance of visually, bookishly assimilated knowledge which weakened the older, primordial aural/oral systems of cultural continuity. This in turn encouraged linear, sequential habits, homogenised experience and pushed auditory and other sensuous complexities to the background.  In The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962), McLuhan explored the impact of mass media on European culture and human consciousness. He argued that technology is not simply the catalogue of inventions and contraptions du jour but a revolution unto itself which exerts “a gravitational effect on cognition which in turn affects social organisation and perceptual habits”.  Long before neuroscience and research into the effects of technologies on neural wiring through such inventions as CAT scanning, McLuhan’s maxim, “the medium is the message” (1964), neatly encapsulated this idea. His equally familiar addition to common parlance, the “global village,” was nothing less than a prophesied, writ large synthesis of technology, medium and message along lines indistinguishable from the Internet itself.

More than an interesting exercise in historical parallels, comparing and contrasting the Renaissance with the Internet Age has real lessons and points of contemplation for teachers, schools and students. By mining information and learning from the remnant institutions of the Byzantine Empire and the so-called Dark Ages, Renaissance thinkers were actuated not merely by a desire to liberate the purity of antiquity but by a yearning to better describe, paint, sculpt and understand their own world. The results are the storied masterpieces of culture and learning and the dazzling can-do exaltation of the human condition. If there was a purpose in all this — it was to progress, to improve and to forge ahead at the human level. This involved not merely the lionisation of human beauty and the beauty humans were capable of creating, but also the uncompromising acceptance of brutal human realities. Machiavelli and Dante told it like it was; the human condition they described is a reminder that even in the midst of an Eden of creativity, people remain flawed — hugely so, more often than not. Likewise, the exciting — as it were — unfolding becoming we encounter when we switch on our computers cannot hide our own ever-present faults and casually accumulated brutalities. And not just because of what we see and learn while surfing the web but because of what we can become while surfing the web: temporarily passive, detached, unengaged, beholden. We don’t often think of the Internet as beautiful but whenever a citizen uploads a politically or culturally transformative clip to YouTube — revealing an enormity others covered up or introducing us to the sublime voice of a great opera diva — this is beauty. We experience online, then, progress and improvement worthy of the ages. So yes, humans remain much the same, even as our world vectors towards an Enlightenment whose form and nature remain a mystery. But how do we respond, how do we inhabit this world and grow, rather than shrink, as human beings?

For teachers and curriculum developers, this is a question as crucial today as it was to the Renaissance humanists. Their studia humanitatis — grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, and moral philosophy — constituted to men like Petrarch a necessary foundation not merely for social breadth (like their descendants real and imagined, the ‘humanities’) but for life lived well itself. Few arguments delighted Petrarch more than Cicero’s famous passage from Pro Archia:

These studies sustain youth and entertain old age, they enhance prosperity, and offer a refuge and solace in adversity; they delight us when we are at home without hindering us in the wider world, and are with us at night, when we travel and when we visit the countryside.

This classical humanism must be understood as a way of life rather than an antidote to its frequent exasperations and ugliness. Leaving aside the necessity of theism — contested by some but not most thinkers in the Renaissance — a humanistic underpinning to education acts as a constant existential reminder of who we are and the commonalities that bind us to one another — and this notwithstanding the constancy of technology’s march. Humanism allows us to change with advances rather than be changed entirely by them. Indeed, technological changes can only be advances if they improve us. And that means all of us. The danger of utilitarian acquiescence is that we end up leaving progress to ‘the system,’ an entity unto itself — as though enlightenment is a built-in feature, more than a match for the bugs. We see how untrue this is whenever the Internet is used to bully, tear down, trivialise or corrupt personal learning with Googled short-cuts and Tweeted cheap shots. The discipline of the humanities must truly be a discipline again: a way to be fully committed to the pursuit of truth — uncompromisingly so, though tolerant of truth’s frequently complex designs — and hardened against the laissez-faire lure of learned, phonily sophisticated helplessness.  This philosophy is applicable and necessary across the curriculum and by no means barred from the falsely demarcated world of ‘hard sciences.’

At Brisbane Girls Grammar School, we aspire to exceptional scholarship.  Petrarch revived Cicero’s assertion of the importance of a man being confident of his worth, courteous to others, decent in his social conduct and active as a public citizen while facing life with courageous scepticism and developing aesthetic sensibilities while listening to reason.  In 2012, as our very Google-savvy Grammar girls touch screen their way through worlds of information, we assert the importance of our intent by the provision of a broad-based liberal education:  Proud of our Grammar tradition, we are a secondary school that establishes the educational foundation for our young women to contribute to their world with wisdom, imagination and integrity.  An aspiration for Renaissance Women — is that being overly ambitious?


McLuhan, M. (1962). The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Boston: MIT Press Edition.

Petrarch. (1333). Humanitas. Retrieved from on 1 November 2012.

Author’s Note

This article expands on ideas presented in A twenty-first century education renaissance? Brisbane Girls Grammar School Gazette Spring 2011


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