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Monday, 2 July 2012

The Enlightenment project could inspire our media

Isabella I of Castille, 1451 - 1504,
famous dynastic matriarch.
Our regard is often short-sighted. In the news of the day we focus on immediate concerns and often miss the bigger picture. Well no surprises there, for many of us. There's also no surprise for these people when I say that universities nowadays usually sell themselves as places where you can become certified for work; your course of study is supposed to qualify you so that entering the workforce is as rapid and painless as possible. In this case, too, we expect immediate returns.

This is topical because of the significant changes affecting the media today, changes spawned by the introduction of a new technology, the internet, which we can say was established in California in 1969 with ARPANET. Companies around the world started setting up websites in earnest in the mid 90s. For the media, income streams peaked in 2005 and have been in rapid fall since. In Australia, the 130-odd-year-old masthead the Sydney Morning Herald announced last month that its print publication could close entirely; readership remains very strong with 3-million-odd unique visitors per month but revenue losses have led to owner Fairfax Media announcing it would lay off 1900 staff. In a short 43 years the new digital technology has worked profound changes on a business that most Australians value highly. Many call for help but most of us are too busy to worry too much about the state of the media, and simply watch and wait as the tectonic shifts introduced by the internet work in radical ways to change the information landscape that surrounds us.

A significant number of people have noted an historical analogue for these changes, which brings me to the picture accompanying this blog post. The new technology that changed the information landscape in Isabella's day was printing; she was born about a decade after the invention in Germany of the printing press. Taking advantage of the new technology to embellish her reign, in other words to further her dynastic ambitions, Isabella and her husband, Ferdinand II of Aragon, sponsored the creation at a university in Spain of the first polyglot Bible, which was published around 1520. People who are better informed than me can talk in greater detail about the reasons why this project was undertaken but its short-term outcome was to spark interest among Europe's Humanist scholars, who began to do similar work in other countries; the name Erasmus comes to mind in this regard.

In a real sense we, living hundreds of years after the fact, are privileged (if we take a bit of time to look) because we can separate the incidental published work of routine note from the truly influential classic, such as Montaigne's Essais, which appeared in 1580. In this work, the wealthy nobleman was able to explore new territory: the self. The new low-cost, accessible technology enabled a regional French bureaucrat and aesthete to bring out a book that had as its focus something other than God. Focusing on the self - looking inward to internal motivations and feelings - turned out to be truly radical. And in 1620, in England, equally radical turned out to be the publication of Francis Bacon's Novum Organum, a manifesto of a new 'scientific' approach to the study of the world. Again, Bacon's regard took the reader away from God not as in Montaigne's case, inward, but outward to the observable world, the world of things.

How long it took for the printing press to decisively eliminate illustrated manuscripts is something I will overlook, but it's an interesting question. For my purposes it's enough to say that it took 180 years for the new information technology to spawn a philosophy so radical that it could fundamentally and forever reshape the outlines of society, in the West and eventually globally by way of trade. From the time of the invention of the printing press it took Isabella of Castille 80 years to introduce the Complutensian Bible. Another 60 years takes us to the publication of Montaigne's Essais, and a further 40 years results in the appearance of Bacon's new method in a published work. With these figures in mind it looks as though things, today, are sped-up; it took only 34 years to go from ARPANET to Facebook.

This brings me back to the short-termism I mentioned in regard to universities as job-factories at the beginning of this post. Because what the story of the Enlightenment project tells us is that advances in knowledge come from the arts, and not from the applied sciences. Everything starts with writing and the spread of the written word. We can go back to a time before the emergence of Humanism if we like, in order to trace the origins of the disputational approach to learning that lies at the heart of the notion of "progress". We can say that it is a particularly European way of dealing with ideas, with social organisation, and with knowledge. Indeed we can. What is unquestionable is that the process of nominalisation - the creation of semantically weighty nouns out of longer semantic elements such as clauses and sentences - has been the motor of progress from the start. Wider access to books sped up the process of nominalisation because more people engaged in discussion, and this led to breakthroughs in learning that led to further breakthroughs as people talked about them and spread ideas abroad via books and pamphlets. You only have to look at the multitudinous lexical coinages of the Renaissance as they are visible in the works of Shakespeare to see the truth of this.

Originality is part of the European disputational method, and we first see it in written words. Discussion breaks out leading to resolution and synthesis. More new ideas emerge. Because of this dynamic, which operates every day and all day in every country, we should value the generation of ideas highly because they are what lead to the creation of wealth and the generation of new breakthroughs in all disciplines. Wider broadcasting of discussion is for this reason a good thing. The problem for traditional media companies to solve now is how to create a perception of value among consumers so that they will pay for information they consume.

Looking back it appears simply truthful to say that the diversified media website does not appeal to consumers, who more and more often turn for their information to specialised websites that focus on a single area of interest. Maybe media companies could consider ways to split up their content into a larger number of specialised websites and give more discretion to the managers of those websites to innovate. This might lead to novel ways to monetise the content their journalists produce, which we know is something that is more popular with information consumers than ever before. By operating a suite of specialised websites our media companies could foster the kind of richness that lies at the heart of innovation and wealth creation. It is that richness that will lead to the breakthroughs media executives are so fervently seeking in their effort to ensure that the companies they lead continue to function within the information landscape that has been created by the internet.

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