Technology often follows a path known as Rhymes of History (Laureate Education (Producer), 2014h), a term based on a Mark Twain quote to the effect that while history may not repeat itself, it often rhymes. One innovation may spark the imagination, leading to new innovations in a much later time and place. A very clear rhyme of history is the connection between the advent of the printed word and the current demand for knowledge as a free and open source on the Internet.
Sometime in the late 1430s, Johannes Gutenberg began to experiment with printing, and in 1455, he published his greatest work, known in our times as the Gutenberg Bible (Bio, 2014). The creation of movable type that could be manipulated in endless ways, and a manufacturing process that would possible thousands of copies, opened up a whole new world of information for the people of Europe.
Some have called the Gutenberg press “the great innovation in early modern information technology” (Dittmar, 2011). Certainly the press allowed the masses access to literature that had previously been held tightly in the hands of the clergy and ruling classes. At a time when every book was copied painstakingly by hand and was usually written in Latin, only an elite few ever had the opportunity even to see a book. To own one and be able to read it at one’s leisure was unheard of. With the press, information was available to the masses.
Economic and social change followed, with printers replacing scribes, and cities becoming centers of publishing (Eisenstein, 1986). Hearkening back to Moore’s Law (Laureate Education (Producer), 2014d), the printing press grew exponentially in its use, while its products fell in price, so that by the end of the 15th century, every major center in Europe had a publishing house, and some cities had several (Eisenstein, 1986). The printing press played social, intellectual, and economic roles, opening the doors of business as the technology became more commonplace (Dittmar, 2011).
In a similar way, the Internet and World Wide Web have revolutionized our access to the world’s documents in ways never imagined when Harnad (1991, p. 46) noted that the early Internet was “a communication medium with revolutionary intellectual potential being used mostly as a global graffiti board.” While the same might be said of today’s Web, where images of cute cats compete with political arguments for space in venues like Facebook, there is another side to the technology, with efforts like Project Gutenberg offering free access to thousands of pieces of literature, great or mundane. The project began in 1971 when Michael Hart created the first eBook, the Declaration of Independence (Project Gutenberg, 2014).
Many scholars, among them Stephen Downes, co-creator of the Connectivism model, believe that all tools for learning should be open and available for everyone. In that effort, he recommends that scholars not submit their work to for-profit publishing houses, even though that may have a lasting negative effect on their careers (Downes, 2009). There is strong support for Open Educational Resources (OERs), defined by Downes as “materials used to support education that may be freely accessed, reused, modified, and shared by anyone (Downes, 2011).
Some have taken open information a step further. Wikileaks founder Julian Assange believes that there should be no hidden news, and his organization openly publishes material that many governments argue may create security threats. The website notes, “One of our most important activities is to publish original source material alongside our news stories so readers and historians alike can see evidence of the truth” (Wikileaks, 2011). In the United States, Edward Snowden published information that he believed the American people had a right to know; while in exile, he has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize (Chappell, 2014); this indicates how strongly some people feel about the right to open information.
In the realm of education, the call is for open textbooks. This movement does not expect publishers to entirely unpaid, but rather calls for open choice, where students could read an e-book free of charge, pay the cost of printing it themselves, or purchase a print copy at its regular price (TechBlog Staff, 2012). With the average cost of college textbooks now hovering around $900 a year, the availability of e-books at no charge would open new possibilities for anyone who wants to learn any topic. Supporters believe that the e-book will eventually take over as the main method of distributing textbooks (TechBlog Staff, 2012).
Open publishing to the Internet is the Gutenberg press of our time. As access to the Internet grows, so does the opportunity for people all over the world to gain knowledge that would otherwise be unavailable to them. The effects on society are already being felt; an informed populace refuses to stand for the elites’ control over knowledge. Edward Snowden maintains that “Technology is the greatest equalizer in human history” (Bamford, 2014). Whether what is learned is a secret government policy or a lesson in mathematics, the right to know is at the heart of freedom.
Bamford, J. (2014, August). The most wanted man in the world. Retrieved from Wired: http://www.wired.com/2014/08/edward-snowden/
Bio. (2014). Johannes Gensfleisch Gutenberg. Retrieved from Biography: http://www.biography.com/people/johannes-gutenberg-9323828#related-video-gallery
Chappell, B. (2014, January 29). Edward Snowden nominated for Nobel Peace Prize. Retrieved from The Two-Way: Breaking News from NPR: http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2014/01/29/268421741/edward-snowden-is-nominated-for-the-nobel-peace-prize
Dittmar, J. (2011, August). Information technology and economic change: The impact of the printing press. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 126(3), 1133-1172. doi:10.1093/qje/qjr035
Downes, S. (2009, October 21). On open access. Retrieved from Stephen’s Web: http://www.downes.ca/post/53345
Downes, S. (2011, July 14). Open Educational Resources: A definition. Retrieved from Stephen’s Web: http://www.downes.ca/post/57915
Eisenstein, E. (1986). On revolution and the printed word. In R. Porter, & M. Teich, Revolution in History (pp. 186-205). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Harnad, S. (1991). Post-Gutenberg galaxy: The fourth revolution in the means of production of knowledge. The Public-Access Computer Systems Review, 2(1), 39-53. Retrieved from Walden University Library, ISSN 1063-164X
Laureate Education (Producer). (2014d). David Thornburg: Evolutionary technologies [Video file]. Baltimore, MD: Author.
Laureate Education (Producer). (2014h). David Thornburg: Rhymes of history [Video file]. Baltimore, MD: Author.
Project Gutenberg. (2014). About Project Gutenberg. Retrieved from Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/wiki/Gutenberg:About
TechBlog Staff. (2012, September 3). Why open source textbooks will soon take over. Retrieved from TechBlog: http://www.techeblog.com/index.php/tech-gadget/why-open-source-textbooks-will-soon-take-over
Wikileaks. (2011). About: What is Wikileaks? Retrieved from Wikileaks: https://wikileaks.org/About.html
Open Source on tablet: http://media.techeblog.com/images/open_source_textbooks.jpg