Those in power have always sought ways to keep the masses in line: religion served this function for Medieval society, just take a look at the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. Gutenberg’s printing press marked the dawning of a new era in which books were no longer out of reach for commoners. The first mass-produced literature was, of course, The Bible, but once the means for commodifying the written word became accessible, the content created diversified to reflect the many dissenting voices that the feudal system had silenced. And despite the centuries that separate them, there are several interesting correlations between the early Renaissance and the modern digital age.

Firstly, Gutenberg’s technology led to a huge increase in the volume of books that were manufactured which pushed down prices and made reading an accessible pastime for all. Just as the internet has led to a proliferation in content, indeed, Baudrillard was ahead of his time when he talked about “more and more information, but less and less meaning.” Along with The Bible and other ‘classics’, the Print Revolution also spurned ‘lowbrow’ pamphlets and plays (yes, back in the day, reading Shakespeare was the cultural equivalent of today’s rom-coms or soap operas).

Similarly, for every Philosophy Tube, TED talk, or Minute Physics there is a vacuous Gen Z ‘creator’ showing off their latest haul, unboxing their latest purchase, or just eating a snack to the camera. The top 3 trending videos of 2021 were: Sidemen Tinder IRL 3 (basically the worst chat-up lines ever being delivered by a group of guys to a single lady through giant phone screen), I Spent 50 Hours Buried Alive (guy gets buried in Perspex coffin, with only his phone to keep him company) and An Afternoon With Prince Harry and James Cordon (a sycophancy contest staged on the top deck of an LA tour bus) with a combined viewing figure of 268 million. And all this content is formulated so that more and more videos that replicate the same essential concept can be churned out. Whatever happened to cats playing pianos, otters holding hands, and spiders on drugs? The innocent, weird, and wacky opportunities of the video-sharing platform have been usurped by the behemoths of monetisation.

"Me at the Zoo" was the first-ever video uploaded to the platform and arguably this set a low benchmark for future influencers. Thanks to the internet we have become obsessed with documenting our every move, our collective insecurity is reflected in the need to share and be liked. The internet, like Gutenberg’s press, has the potential to expand our horizons far beyond our own backyard, out into the frenetic population of the Global Village. And yet, as a society, we are more introspective and self-absorbed than ever.

Gutenberg, himself a political exile, paved the way for others, such as Martin Luther, Desiderius Erasmus, William Caxton, and Robert Cawdrey. More authors than ever before had a platform, including unknown independent voices. Likewise, the early days of the internet seemed to herald a democratic, leveling of the playing field, but more and more the most popular platforms are dominated by big corporations who exploit the global potential for promoting blockbuster movies or mainstream music videos. Industry producers can be regarded as gatekeepers, controlling what we are likely to see on the landing page; in a similar way, the illiterate class could access popular texts of their day by attending public readings of early pamphlets at their local tavern, but they had no choice in what they got to hear. William Caxton is thought to have printed the very first advert, back in the late 1470s. It was for a priest’s manual, through the lens of digital hindsight this looks rather meta, a text designed to sell a text.

Fake News is deemed by many as a symptom of the digital age, epitomised by Donald Trump’s ‘big lies’, but in fact is nothing new at all. The printing press helped to galvanise support for Cromwell in the build-up to the English Civil War. The public was presented with a rash of inconsistent information and could no longer rely on a single ‘authority’ when it came to the written word. Historians such as Jason Peacey have struggled to piece together a definitive account due to so many differing versions of events.

Charles I was only too aware of the power of print and did his best to restrict the practice within a tightly controlled zone: this was limited to London, its environs, and Cambridge University. Today four big players enjoy a monopoly over what is published, back then it was just one, The Stationer’s Company, and books had to hold a license, issued by the church authorities. However, as Cromwell gained more followers, the attempt at censorship was thwarted and a ‘black market’ of underground presses emerged, the most notorious run by Richard Overton. The progress from hand-written to typeface meant it was harder to track down illicit operators, just as the internet offers anonymity for ‘bad actors.'

At one point Robert Eeles (another blaggard printer) was hired to uncover Overton’s outfit, in much the same way, police will recruit experienced cyber-terrorists to assist with ethical hacking operations. Just as this clandestine network was established in response to the ‘divine rights' of the aristocracy, today we have The Dark Web which seeks to bypass authentic ownership of media products through piracy (among other criminal activities). Comparisons can also be drawn to the likes of 4chan, Omegle, and Endchan: while Overton rallied against the King and his Cavaliers, disenfranchised web users take to anonymous platforms to voice their frustrations at the new ‘woke culture’. Whether you are a digital pessimist or a digital optimist, there is no denying that it acts as a breeding ground for extremism and radicalisation.

Before Gutenberg’s invention, almost all written text was in Latin, the mother tongue of the Catholic church (control the language and you control the people). Printing quickly began to cater to the demand for English translations and vernacular variations. The dominance of the English language has continued and is used by 60% of the Top Ten million websites, a disproportionate share, as you might expect, with English only accounting for 13% of the speaking population; whereas Chinese, spoken by 14% of the global population, is used by only 1.5% of the Top Ten million sites. This is a classic case of Western Hegemony: the empire builders may have relinquished independence to the nations they colonized, but they still seek to wield power in more subtle ways, most notably through cultural ‘dominance.'

Despite all our technological progress, we may not have advanced so very far at all. In fact, it could be argued that some of the benefits of the Print Revolution have been reversed by the Communication Revolution. While literacy rates increased dramatically thanks to the printed word, the Literacy Trust recently reported that 16% of British adults are considered functionally illiterate. That figure was around 10% Before the dawn of print. So, it would seem we are not harnessing the educational capability of the internet. Unsurprising when the powers that be understand only too well that education is power. Have you looked at a typical daily newspaper’s website recently? There is more video, advertising, and gambling content than serious reportage. Another aspect that has sadly not been replicated is the formation of the public library and the belief in the distribution of knowledge for public good.

Founded in 1653, The Chetham Library (Manchester) is the oldest surviving public library in Britain. Lucky for them, the heritage has saved it from brutal local government cuts. Over the last decade, almost a fifth of our libraries have closed, and the future of many more is uncertain. Of course, it could be argued that the internet is one big global library. Digital optimists would have us believe that nobody wants to read physical books anymore. The closures reflect a lack in demand. How is it then, that print book sales in the US rose last year by nine percent? Well, it’s partly down to platforms like Tik-Tok, and the rise in book influencers. If there is a commercial opportunity, digital and print are happy bedfellows. Sadly, no one has come up with a way to monetise municipal book collections. Capitalism knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

A fact that has been demonstrated through the ages in the exploitation of human labour. Consider this one final parallel: the Print Revolution was closely followed by The Industrial Revolution, just as the Communication Revolutions spawned the Gig Economy. When conditions arise that may lead to a more well-informed society, the survival instinct of the elite will always prevail. What progress have we really made when so many of us still need to work too hard, too long for too little pay just to survive?