When talking about revolutionary technologies after the fact, we tend to tell very linear, simplified, cause-and-effect stories:
Technology x was replaced by technology y, causing z to happen in the world.
This can be useful shorthand. However, it allows us to gloss over the far more complex, incremental process by which technologies grow, evolve, are resisted, and bring about change.
We then fail to account for those details when talking about potentially revolutionary technologies ex ante. Much of the discussion of cryptocurrency and other blockchain applications centers around what old order they will wipe away, be it governments, banks, or others.
Not so fast.
Let’s Get Monastic
Here’s a simple story of an old revolutionary technology we usually take as gospel (pun intended):
Scribes, mostly monks, used to copy books by hand. Then Gutenberg invented the printing press, which replaced the obsolete method of copying by hand and brought about a revolution in knowledge all over Europe.
At a bird’s-eye view, this may be largely correct, but digging a little deeper reveals conversations, pushback, and finally adaptation that will look familiar to any blockchain enthusiast.
We have precious-few quotes from the monastic scribes and illuminators (who added ornate illustrations) of the day, but what we do have is truly wonderful.
Stephen Hicks finds this gem in William J. Bernstein’s Masters of the World: How Media Shaped History. It is part of a petition by Benedictine monks to stop this printing press lunacy:
They shamelessly print, at negligible cost, material which may, alas, inflame impressionable youths, while a true writer dies of hunger [and] a young girl reads Ovid to learn sinfulness.… Writing indeed, which brings gold for us, should be respected and held to be nobler than all goods, unless she has suffered degradation in the brothel of the printing presses.
One detects the familiar fear of being displaced by a new technology, coupled with a righteous plea that this calamity be averted.
Other beneficiaries of the status quo emphasized what was being lost rather than the approaching fires of hell. David Malki digs up a 15th-century tract by Abbot Johannes Trithemius titled In Praise of Scribes. After dismissing the printing press as hype (sound familiar?), the abbot delves into the commitment of those who write by hand versus those who print: “He who ceases from zeal for writing because of printing is no true lover of the Scriptures.”
These dismissals, warnings of horror, and admonitions all have obvious parallels today, from the dismissal of cryptocurrencies as a solution to a problem we don’t have to some surprisingly shrill outcries from Nobel laureate economists.
But what ended up happening to these heavenly ordained disseminators of truth as the printing press spread?
In a 2006 study, Peter Yu of Texas A&M Law School finds that our scribes’ fears may not fully have come to fruition:
Notwithstanding the growing demand for printed books, the scribal industry continued to prosper for decades — long enough for the existing scribes to make a living while enabling young apprentices to learn a new trade.…
While printed books were state-of-the-art, manuscripts remained as popular as before, at least initially.
The reasons for this slower transition are both fascinating and relevant to today. Many older scholars (consumers) were not as comfortable reading in the new medium, the equivalent of many of us eschewing screens for printed books.
Early printed material was also at first more expensive than handwritten books, as the former lacked workers with know-how and the latter enjoyed a glut of cheap labor in monasteries. And people at first seemed to lack an intuitive understanding of just what this new invention could accomplish.
While we sit around wondering why blockchain and other technologies like artificial intelligence aren’t turning the world upside down before our very eyes, it’s instructive to remember that epoch-defining inventions of the past that we now reduce to a sentence or two actually took ages to unfold.