Many scholars have noted a striking historical analogy: in 1994, with the arrival of an easy to use graphics interface for the Internet, the WWW, our culture has experienced something akin to the movement from manuscripts to print in the 15th Century. Historians of media differ on many features of this global mutation in media: on the character of a culture centered on manuscripts, on the causal effects of print, on the degree to which media shapes or is shaped by culture. But there are three features of this shift that most scholars accept. Each has important implications for our ongoing institutionalization of the Web:
This thought experiement helps explain the censorship projects, conceived by the Catholic church and monarchs like Francis I of France and James I of England, to contain the menace of print. We late moderns are so used to a promiscuous glut of print media that it is difficult for us to understand why so many early moderns experienced a unsupervised printing as a serious threat to civilized life. Throughout the 16th and 17th Centuries, those who framed media policy worried that the spread of print would expand religious heresy and political sedition. They were right to worry. The subversive power of printing is illustrated by Martin Luther's translation of the Latin vulgate (15??) into German: by delivering the scriptures into the hands of every believer who could read in their native tongue, authority over the meaning of Holy Scripture is dispersed. Little wonder that the Pope convenes the Council of Trent to combat this democratization of religion with new systems of control. Most early modern systems of censorship required that anyone seeking to print a book--whether the author, bookseller or printer--receive a license from an officially authorized granter of licenses. This became the accepted norm throughout Europe in the early centuries of print.
An Unlicensed Press: History ran an early experiment in unlicensed printing: during the English Civil War (1641-1649), when Parliament had won effective control of London and the Stuart monarchy raised its standard at Oxford, England experienced a suspension of the informal system of censorship developed by the Crown and the Stationery's Company in the first century of printing in London (Feather). Civil War brought an unregulated explosion of print--much of it propaganda designed to advance one side or other in the war. Citizens began to experience, and perhaps enjoy, unfiltered access to a wide variety of writing. When the Parliament passed a new licensing act in 1644, which was modelled upon that of the monarchy it abhorred, John Milton published Areopagitica: an Address to Parliament for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing. Milton's text outlines the argument for the system that exists in most of the liberal democratic states of our own day: a press that is "free" because there is no "prior restraint" of the press. In Milton's world of readers, the critical function of censorship--deciding what is true and false, good or evil--passes to the individual reader. In effect, each reader becomes his or her own censor.
Printing helped to make writing an ambient part of culture; print became a medium almost as pervasive as speech. Many in the early modern period still believed that censorship was possible. But, in fact, if one studies projects of censorship (from the 17th C. England and the Old regime in France to modern Russia, China, and Iran), one finds that censorship almost always fails. Rather than winning full control of what is written, published and read (as some may have dreamed of doing), official censorship becomes an unintended collaborator of writers. It inflects the character of texts written in the wake of censorship. See below, movie production code.
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7/12/99 (Last Revised 8/9/99 )