How Google Killed Gutenberg - and Explained the World

How Google killed Gutenberg - and explained the world. A new theory of international relations.
By: /
March 5, 2012
2012_03_Gutenberg.jpg

Last week, the author of “‘Here Comes I, Jack Straw:’ English Folk Drama and Social Revolt” advanced one of the most compelling theories of international relations I have heard.

Thomas Pettitt, a professor of English at the University of Southern Denmark, argues that the communications revolution that Johannes Gutenberg triggered is an aberration in a much longer communications trajectory. The 500 years between 1500 and 2000, Pettitt claims, are to communications what the CN Tower is to the Toronto skyline: an exception. Pettitt maintains that oral culture is the norm, and that the print culture of the past half millennium represents a divergence from that norm. In other words, iPads and Google have much more in common with the oral storytelling and theatre of the Middle Ages than they do with books and magazines.

This theory has been coined the Gutenberg Parenthesis: the Gutenberg era of books represents an interruption – a parenthesis – in an otherwise smooth arc of human communication. 

The similarities between Jack Dorsey (founder of Twitter) and the medieval peasant may not be immediately apparent, but dig a little deeper and you’ll see that Pettitt has a point. In the current era, as with the pre-Gutenberg era, truth is malleable. Our sources of knowledge are no longer permanent – like libraries and indexes – but rather constantly evolving – like chat rooms and Google. There is no Encyclopedia Britannica to ground what we know. Instead, we rely on Wikipedia, where something may be true today but false tomorrow. Our digital networks of knowledge have more in common with a medieval town than they do with the national library.

But the similarities and differences extend beyond how and where we get our knowledge. During the book period, we relied on categories to organize information, but today – as in the pre-book period – there is no linearity to our organization of knowledge. Each time the Google SEO algorithm changes, so, too, does the structure of our knowledge. Similarly, in the pre-book period, a person’s reputation changed with every whisper through the town square.

During the book period, we grew accustomed to stories with beginnings, middles, and ends. Today, as in the pre-book period, our stories are constantly interrupted and changed. Consider how this interactive film compares to a history book about the Second World War. During the book period, culture took the form of individual works. In today’s online world, in a style similar to that of the oral, pre-book period, Twitter feeds and Facebook walls aggregate the input of multiple “authors.”

One does not expect a folklore scholar to declare a new theory of international relations, but I think Pettitt might be onto something. The period of the Gutenberg Parenthesis, after all, corresponds closely with what scholars of international relations might call the Westphalian period of state sovereignty.

The Peace of Westphalia was signed in 1648, and introduced the concept of territorial sovereignty, which grounded global politics for the subsequent 350 years or so. In the last few decades, sovereignty has lost its iron grip on international relations: Regional communities like the European Union have emerged, and intervening in other states has become the norm. In 2001, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty fundamentally redefined sovereignty. The international community, the Responsibility to Protect affirmed, is obligated to intervene in a state that fails to protect its population from mass atrocities.

Many theories of international relations have tried to explain this devolution of sovereignty. Some have even drawn, without knowing, on the Gutenberg Parenthesis. Parag Khanna, for instance, argues that the modern city-state is replacing the state as the primary unit of international relations, so that the geography of the future looks very similar to that of medieval cities.  

It would take much more rigorous analysis to position the Westphalian system within the Gutenberg Parenthesis. But even preliminary analysis shows that the Westphalian system shares many characteristics of other parenthetical phenomena. The Westphalian system of states is remarkably linear, particularly in comparison to more networked theories of international relations. Political units, as defined in this system, are easily categorized and stagnant: A state may be failing from the inside but, as far as the Westphalian system is concerned, it remains a state. In the Westphalian system, communications occurs between presidents, Prime Ministers and appointed diplomats, not between amorphous communities of digital diplomats. And a state’s history is the product of treaties, not Wikileaks.

Whether or not you believe Facebook caused the Arab Spring, there is no doubt that new methods of communication are changing the dynamics of international relations. Drawing on English folk drama, communications theory is making strides in making sense of the many-to-many dynamic of Google, Twitter and the like. Perhaps it is time for international relations to do the same.

Photo courtesy Reuters.