‘The future is medieval’

A discussion with the scholars behind the "Gutenberg Parenthesis," a sweeping theory of digital—and journalism—transformation

What follows is an interview and discussion I had in Odense, Denmark, with Thomas Pettitt and Lars Ole Sauerberg, two scholars at the University of Southern Denmark, who made a splash in digital media circles with their theory of the “Gutenberg Parenthesis,” the idea that the digital age, rather than solely a leap into the future, also marks a return to practices and ways of thinking that were central to human societies before Johannes Gutenberg’s 15th century invention changed human literacy and the world.

The era that preceded Gutenberg’s invention, the theory goes, was a time of fluidity and “orality”—speeches, plays, songs, and other communications, including news—that weren’t written down, but instead were ephemeral and uncontained, easily shared, manipulated, and changed by each person who experienced them. The printing press, the authors contend, for the first time on a mass scale introduced the idea of fixity, permanence, and “containment.” Ideas were now impressed on a page and literally “bound” forever—essentially unalterable and thus given a new authority, whether it was deserved or not, that oral communication didn’t have.

The technological change led to nothing less than a change in human experience itself, the scholars say, and paved the way for new ways of looking at the world that emphasized separateness and authority: individualism, nation states, etc. The “parenthesis” idea sees the digital age as bringing about a return to earlier, more fluid, less permanent, more connected, modes of communication, and, indeed, of being. Good summaries of the idea are contained in, oops, flow through Megan Garber’s good post for Nieman Lab from 2010 and a discussion at MIT the same year. (ADDING: a recently revised new paper by Pettitt on parenthesis theory’s implications for privacy is here.) I push back a bit toward the bottom. This Q&A took place last November, which is not that long ago when you think, as we do, in five-hundred-year chunks. (ADDING: Painstakingly transcribed by Peter Sterne,) Iit has been extensively edited but is still purposely long and rambling, as befitting free-flowing communication modes in the post-Gutenberg era. Best read with some lute music in the background.

Dean Starkman: The thing that first got me interested in the Gutenberg Parenthesis idea was learning that Thomas wasn’t a futurist, like a lot of media thinkers, but a medievalist.

Thomas Pettitt: Well it turns out that in some ways they’re the same thing, aren’t they? We are not just moving upwards and onwards, we are moving upwards and backwards. Even though it’s going to be much more technologically sophisticated from now on than it was 50 years ago, in many ways, we are going back to the way things were long before. This is the definition of a “parentheses.” It’s an idea, which interrupts an ongoing idea, and when the interruption’s over, the ongoing idea comes back.

With the right spelling, “media studies” is contained within “mediaeval studies”. One of those neat cabbalistic things that means nothing in itself but is useful for making you think: a medievalist can be a futurist because the Gutenberg Parenthesis tells us the future is medieval.

DS: Got it. One of the important distinctions to think about is, there’s sort of a concept of return, but not a “revolution” in the literal sense, as in revolving 360 degrees to the beginning.

Sauerberg: They are both revolutions, but the second revolution is reversing the first.

DS: But “revolution” isn’t quite right because that turns you to the point where you began.

Pettitt: We’ve played with “return”. We’ve played with the notion of going back where we started—“reversion.” That sounds like we’re going all the way back. If our computers all go dead and we have to start using pen and paper again, that will be a reversion. My current favorite word is “restoration.” So you are restoring the way things were before. Like the Restoration of the monarchy in England after the Civil War. A restoration where things had nonetheless changed in the interim.

Sauerberg: And kept changing.

DS: What’s the mode of communication that existed before the printing press that you think is now being restored?

Sauerberg: I don’t think that Tom and I think in completely parallel ways here, but we have a return to a situation where you count on individualism and where authority is a problem. If you go back to a time before the parentheses started, you sometimes could match authority with God or with a metaphysical world picture that made sense. The problem is that, nowadays, after the parentheses, you would have to find a new sense of authority. The Wikipedia phenomenon is very characteristic of the situation because on the one hand, we have the destruction of all paper, all print encyclopedias. We have to use the online facilities, but the online facilities like Wikipedia are looking desperately for authority in order to become credible, so there is a war out there in cyberspace fighting for authority. But the point is that with the encyclopedia, within parentheses, the authority was in the encyclopedia, in the format of the book, in the book as a symbol. We no longer have that. You have to make up your own authority. Whenever you look up a word, you have to be very much aware of, “how far is this authoritative?” So you have to think in two planes at the same time, on two levels.

DS: So you’re saying that’s in contrast to before the parenthesis, when authority was clear?

Sauerberg: I think authority was always invoked before the parentheses. You lived with God in the back of your mind all the time. What happened within the parentheses was that you abandoned God. I mean you didn’t realize it until Nietzsche, but you abandoned the metaphysical theory behind everything. But now you have to have this double mindset. You’re always looking out, checking, at the same time, as you are experiencing things.

DS:I want to stay in the period before the parentheses and understand how did people think and communicate and how the way they communicated altered the way they thought?

Pettitt: I think we agree but we have our different emphases. After all, Lars Ole is interested in literature and philosophy and the higher reaches of culture and cogniniton. Specializing in folklore and popular culture, I’m more interested in what happened on the ground. Well, my phrase for it is that networking was replaced by the “containment” that we talked about. I’m right at the base of the cultural processes; I’m thinking about the actual physical means by which information was communicated, and it was done by connections. It was done by people who spoke to people. Any tale, any narrative that survived existed by virtue of someone performing it. Someone who knew it, remembered it, and they performed it again and again. Or they performed it, and someone else heard it and remembered it, and they performed it, and someone learned it from them—just connections. Connections between a series of performances from one person who knows the tale and then a series of people who passed the material onto each other.

That process of connection also involves instability because there’s no authoritative text. If you’re telling a story of King Arthur and Sir Lancelot, then the person who told it to you isn’t there when you’re telling it, and he didn’t compose it anyway, and there’s no fixed text. You will tell a story that works for the audience you are speaking to, and that story will change. So we’re talking about connections between performers, and through those connections, the material changes. The words are unstable and that is certainly going to have an effect on the way people think.

DS: So they were singing songs, reciting poems, playing the lute, and whatever else they were doing in the town square. But how did that affect the way they thought of themselves as people, of the society they lived in, of the world?

Pettitt: This is the most speculative part. There is an interesting analogy between what happens in the delivery system, the very material business of transmission, and what happens in the stories they tell, and what happens in the way of thinking reflected in those stories. And the key word is connection—a series of connected performances, a series of connected performers, and that same structure appears in the works themselves, in the stories they tell. And finally, to answer your question—in my view people who experience communication in that way, they will also see the world in terms of connection. For example, their social arrangements: The Middle Ages was not strong on membership of communities. They were not obsessive about inside versus outside. They didn’t emphasize, “I’m a denizen of this town, I’m a citizen of this country, I belong in this nation, behind these frontiers.” They saw themselves rather like Hobbits (Tolkien was a medievalist). Hobbits knew their relatives to the seventh degree: second cousins three times removed, and so on. In the Middle Ages people saw themselves as part of a network of connections. They knew their family trees. They knew with whom they were related. They identified themselves as a node in a network and they saw pathways, connections to other people in their extended family. They also saw themselves in terms depending on their profession. If they were in the Church, they saw themselves in the Church hierarchy as being a priest here, subject to the archdeacon here, subject to the bishop there, and the archbishop and the pope. You could have status by being the servant to a servant to someone important.

Sauerberg: Which is quite interesting because the first book-borne PR campaign was the Reformation in Northern Europe, which spread like wildfire because of the printing technique, which took away hierarchy. And the Counter-Revolution then made use of the same printing technique in order to protest against the Reformation, so you have it here.

Pettitt: And then there’s the Treaty of Westphalia: The Westphalian system of nation states in the early seventeenth century and that’s the same—the nation-state and the dominance of the book are more or less contemporaneous.

DS: Got it. An important idea that is hard to argue against is that the idea of personhood and individualism is contemporaneous with the book as well.

Pettitt: Which comes first is hard to tell.

DS: So before the parenthesis, people saw themselves as some sort of organic whole?

Pettitt: A molecular structure, I don’t know about organic. But the same with social relations. Everybody had a lord above them and a subject below them: and you were the vassal of this lord who was subject to the king. It was based on connections, so I don’t know about organic. Just connective, networking, it was a networked society; the media were networked. The things communicated through the media were built up of networks and peoples notions of the world were in terms of connections and networks. … And then comes the book.

DS: The book is container, a bound thing.

Sauerberg: If you take a look at this room, it’s like a library. I mean you could do without it.

Pettitt: Today exactly they have closed the main entrance of our university library for building purposes and we’re wondering will it matter?

DS: In parenthesis, you’re saying that it’s contemporaneous with the Renaissance and the primacy of the individual and separateness. And it’s about, “I’m me,” and “You are you,” and “We’re Denmark, that’s Germany.” You’re saying that’s all part of the book, right?

Pettitt: It’s not “part of” the book, but it’s a parallel developmemt, which must be connected in some way. Nations didn’t have frontier conflicts. Denmark’s a wonderful example. South of Denmark there are a couple of Duchies that were technically subject to the German empire but the King of Denmark was their Duke, and no one bothered much until suddenly every nation had to have a frontier, and so the Germans and the Danes had several wars about where to draw the frontier.

DS: And that’s because people started thinking in terms of boundaries and containment?

Sauerberg: I mean what sparked off the collapse of Eastern Europe was the fax machine, wasn’t it? I mean that there were no boundaries.

DS: One thing I was curious about is the idea of hierarchy and authority. It’s interesting that hierarchy and authority were a defining feature of the pre-book era. So, if we’re restoring something, if we’re picking up where we left off, what are we looking at here?

Sauerberg: We are restoring the problem of authority. That is what we’re restoring. Medieval people had God in their minds all the time as kind of a guarantee, what they were told by the priests. Now what corresponds to it is the urge to authority.

DS: But isn’t that a little too clever? Before the parenthesis, society was defined by hierarchy.

Pettitt: It was defined by connections.

DS: But in the end the political structure was feudal. Now if you listen to people who don’t believe in the parenthesis but who believe in technological progress, they will tell you that the Internet revolution is about flattening hierarchy and the decomposition of authority. And yet the pre-parenthesis period was almost the opposite—it was all about hierarchy. What are we looking at from your perspective on what happens now that the parenthesis is closed

Sauerberg: New hierarchies will emerge. We’re looking for the urge for authority, the need for points of orientation.

Pettitt: And the authority of the book, the authority of the medium. In the parenthesis, the medium itself guaranteed authority because of its nature and solidness. This flattening out means that books are not more important than other forms of communication.

DS: So this is not necessarily a hopeful vision for the future. One thing about the book is that you can say that while it was an authoritative object, at least you can argue that was democratizing. Anyone, theoretically, could write a book. Martin Luther could, for instance.

Pettitt: He became a new authority.

Sauerberg: What Luther wrote was that whenever two or three people gather together, the Church was there. They could read about it. They could read about themselves. That was thanks to the book, to the spread of print.

DS: What Luther was saying sounds like what Internet advocates are saying today. The book there was a liberating thing.

Sauerberg: It was not as neat as all that. You cannot think of going back to something that was there. It’s rather kind of a structural thing. Are you familiar with the phenomenon of fan fiction? I invented a term some years back called the “unintended sequel”—that’s a new phenomenon in literature that people write on to establish canonical works. They write it in their own fashion, the way they want things to end up. So they add something. That is a new phenomenon that coincides with the closing of the parenthesis. Fan fiction is the phenomenon that people write on in large numbers of well-known books and do it in cyberspace alone. They never “publish.” They’re not intended for publication. It’s a ‘net thing and the one who leads that at the moment is Rowling and Harry Potter. There are, I think, at the last count more than 600,000 fan fiction contributions to the Harry Potter saga. And this is something that completely put out without any boundaries. It grows by its own energy, and people tell stories.

Pettitt: Which sounds pretty medieval to me because in the medieval period, the simple business of embroidering further on existing stories was their default mode. The existence of a story didn’t mean it was finished or completed. Anyone with a talent or the ability to contribute could rewrite bits or add material. What were they doing in between this event and that event or what were they doing before? There were prequels. What happened to them afterwards? There were sequels. It’s the norm of medieval storytelling that you take a story and you elaborate on it.

DS: And so the idea of authorship is now completely up for grabs. I was trying to assert the importance of authorship in the journalism field, but what you’re saying now is…

Pettitt: Well, of course, Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody wasn’t written by everybody. That’s a challenging thought.

Sauerberg: We are under considerable pressure to produce a book about Gutenberg’s Parenthesis.

Pettitt: So how do we report on the end of the book, in a book?

DS: So before the parenthesis, authorship was not really necessary?

Pettitt: No, and it was mostly anonymous. And sometimes, if there was a name, there’s often no information about the name. There are those who say that the first known author, Homer, isn’t the name of an author, it’s the name of a process because in very Ancient Greek “homer” meant “the joiner of pieces.” It specified a function, rather than an identity.

DS: And you were even talking about Shakespeare and the question of his authorship.

Pettitt: That’s right on the edge. That’s why I find being a Shakespeare scholar has also become very interesting.

DS: Shakespeare, the iconic author.

Pettitt: Well, he is now. The bracket goes right through his career. I put that bracket at about 1600, and Shakespeare is a very good example of someone who recycled material.

Sauerberg: It’s a Gutenberg-parenthesis symptom to hunt for the real Shakespeare.

Pettitt: He didn’t care. He didn’t care. Half of his works appeared without his name on them.

DS: They were published in quartos [big sheets folded into quarters]?

Pettitt: Quartos. Their equivalent of our paperbacks. They were published as paperbacks, and let’s say, half of them didn’t have his name on them. Shakespeare did not invent any of his plots. Shakespeare rewrote dramatized existing narratives, and in many cases, wrote new versions of existing plays. There’s an awful lot in Shakespeare, which is not Shakespeare. And he also used standardized techniques. He used verbal formulas and traditional dramatic structures, standard units—a bit like Lego bricks fitted together.

DS: Okay, not to keep us going all day, but there’s a couple things I wanted to work with and one of them is the limits of the idea of restoration and return. This idea of poets, storytellers and people who deliver news verbally—all that resonates as being restored today. But there seems to be a real fundamental difference between that kind of cultural production and the digital age, and that is this idea of a record. Sometimes I feel like the Internet is the ultimate container.

Pettitt: Well how long is it since you tried to link to a place, and it said, “no longer exists?” What is the average lifespan of an Internet site? I think I read it’s two years.

Sauerberg: You’re forced to change platforms every 10 years.

DS: Do you really have faith—in a serious way—that something you upload today will not be available later to come back to haunt you? Now we’re talking about authority. Now we’re talking about a thing in which all of your musings, and your poems, and your songs are now open to scrutiny, and I want to say permanently, and I think you should concede there’s a problem here, right?

Pettitt: In my experience and my thinking, the Internet, digital technology are as ephemeral as speech in the sense that I cannot easily now access documents I wrote in 2003. I will ask for special help to do it. And a lot will survive. I’m sure anything wicked I’ve written will turn up somewhere, but an awful lot of other things will disappear.

DS: But you see the issue about someone in Medieval times telling a story that was outside the bounds of authoritative sanction, afterward it was gone. Now, for journalists, this is not a small deal. But also as just people living in this new environment, the fluidity is, to me, within a giant container.

Sauerberg: Yes, but if you take a look at things before the parentheses, people had to keep all those things in their heads. Within the parenthesis, you have books, you can put all of your memories up on shelves. It was easily recognizable and accessible and you know exactly where it is on the shelf. Now you put everything into the computer. I’ve spent most of this morning looking for exact texts from seven years ago, that I hope to be able to recycle and find them. They are somewhere in there. I have to use my own head as the sort of control and I find that, increasingly so, that I have to keep a personal touch on what I need because I cannot rely on the computer because everything goes into it. It’s far too plentiful.

DS: But isn’t the reason that Google is the largest corporation in the face of the earth precisely because of its ability to perform searches just like the one you’re talking about and if you couldn’t find it, someone with a greater technical expertise could? And we’re talking about authority at this point.

Sauerberg: But I need to know what to look for exactly, which means I would have to use my head in the first place.

DS: I wish I could be as comfortable that everything we’re doing now. For instance, this machine [the voice recorder], it changes the whole story, right? Say this was a live feed…

Pettitt: We’d have to worry about it for about four years.

DS: You’d have to worry about it for at least four years.

Pettitt: Yeah, and then after that it would disappear. There’d be so much stuff around, it would disappear. Google only goes for the stuff with plenty of links. Or all the links would be broken.

Sauerberg: That we would have to rely on memory.

Pettitt: And we would claim that it’s been manipulated. That’s the other point.

DS: And so you’re rejecting the idea of the Internet as a container?

Pettitt: Yes, I do. It’s a network.

DS: And the computer file is not a container?

Pettitt: Yes it is, if it’s static, and you can’t manipulate it. You can even manipulate PDF now, can’t you? A static computer file belongs within the Gutenberg Parenthesis because it can’t be interfered with—it is contained; demarcated. That is the last form of the book, I think.

DS: So you’re saying anything can be hacked?

Pettitt: No I’m saying if it’s unhackable, it’s still a book. Books are unhackable. Most digital files can be hacked, and they belong to the new age, just like memories.

DS: The interesting thing about the theory is that, projecting out, we’re not looking at just new ways of communications, but new ways of being, new ways of organizing society, right?

Pettitt: History shows the changes in the one are normally accompanied by changes of the other levels as well. There are those that say it’s the media technology that causes the other changes. I’m not quite there yet, but so far they’ve been synchronized.

DS: And you’re saying essentially that people will be searching for authority? Authoritative hierarchical structures will return because that was a component of pre-Gutenberg society.

Sauerberg: Authorities returning as a problem as something that people are aware of, rather than something people take for granted and place in books.

Pettitt: There was a time when the book was an authority in itself, so that you didn’t need to worry about the other authority.

DS: With the book what do we get? We get the Scientific Revolution, we get the Enlightenment, we got universities and we got democracy. We got the Declaration of Independence, and Freud and everyone else. Before the parenthesis what did we have? We had the Dark Ages. With the destruction of this apparatus, is that what we get?

Pettitt: Quite possibly. We may be surfing to serfdom; to a digital feudalism.

Sauerberg: But perhaps we get diversity, first and foremost.

DS: What’s the public today in this new environment?

Pettitt: The question itself is ultimately inconceivable. The question is parenthetical. Distinguishing between the publisher who produces and the public who receives, that in itself is a categorization, which will decay in the new circumstances because we’re in an era where the boundaries between the journalists and the public are decaying.

DS: What do you think of this idea of one person who has earned authority by doing the work and now has presented—not users and not participants—but let’s face it, readers. They can send out chunks of it later but while they are doing it, they are presented with a coherent idea of what’s happening in, for instance, the U.S. financial system.

Pettitt: The notion of the “right” story is parenthetical. The complete story—the truth and the whole truth and nothing but the truth—I think there are faint glimpses of hope, well, for you. We’re in the business of predicting the future on the basis of the past, not if it’s going to be good or bad, or democratic or otherwise. What’s happened in the first instance is that journalism and the newspapers have lost their status, their high category status, in the Internet world. Blogs and newspapers are starting to resemble each other, and it’s very difficult for people to decide whom they will believe, where will they put their trust. A newspaper is just another voice in the marketplace of exchanging information. That’s where it’s going. So, journalists need to have some kind of character that distinguishes them and the hope I’ve detected is there are people who are exploring this kind of world—a world of gossip. Newspapers are sinking into a sea of gossip and rumor, and what do you do? How do people survive in a world of gossip and rumor? Well the good news is, there are people who’ve been studying rumor and gossip from a scientific perspective for some years, and, it turns out that not all are equal. People have done case studies, fieldwork. People have gone out to a business and interviewed them and recorded people gossiping at lunch and over the water machine.

It turns out that we are not all equal in the world of gossip. In a given area where gossip and rumor are exchanged, there are gatekeepers, in a new sense. I mean we already use “gatekeepers,” of news people, “gate-keeping journalism” as deciding what comes into the news and what doesn’t. The new sense is: What is going to go on and in what form in the next stage in the transmission of the rumor? And in any gossip community there are gatekeepers who set the scene. They decide, is this rumor going in, am I going to pass this on, and in what shape, and it seems that they have an influence. The last sentence is, journalists need to be gatekeepers, not in the old sense, but in this new sense of those who shape the passing on of gossip, and who can have a good effect or a bad effect on it.

DS: Let me read from Michael Schudson, a journalism scholar where I work. He wrote this in 1995. It says:

Imagine a world, one easily conceivable today, where governments, businesses, lobbyists, candidates, and social movements deliver information directly to citizens on home computers. Journalism is momentarily abolished. Citizens tap into whatever information source they want on computer networks. They also send their own information and their own commentary. They are as easily disseminators as recipients of the news. The Audubon Society, the Ku Klux Klan, criminals in prison, children at summer camp, elderly people, etc. Each of us our own journalist.

What would happen? At first, I expect citizens would tend to rely on the most legitimate public officials for news, trusting especially what the White House sent their way. The President, as the single most symbolically potent, and legitimate source of authority, would gain even greater power… Other sources would be too difficult to evaluate. Congress for instance, would be more cacophonous than ever. Lines of authority that today give Congressional leaders more of a place in the public eye.

At that point, even social critics who now long for more public dialogue, more democratic discourse, more voices in the public sphere, would have had enough. People would want to sort through the endless information available. What is most important?…Demand would arise not only for indexers and abstracters, but for interpreters, reporters, and editors. Some people would seek partisan abstracts and analysis, but others, less confident in that existing parties, cults or sects represent their own views, would want independent observers—people wise to the ways of politics, but without strong commitments to either party, people able to read politicians well, to know them intimately, to see them and see through them.

Journalism, of some sort, would be reinvented. A professional press corps would reappear.
So how is the post-parenthesis so different?

Pettitt: It still won’t be deciding. He’ll be a navigator rather than a gatekeeper. This new journalist, this post-parenthetical journalist, who would emerge after the period of chaos, he’ll be a different kind, with a different function. It’ll be a navigation function. He’ll help people to find their way through the network, rather than saying, “this is news and this isn’t, I’m going to let you read this, I’m not going to let you read this.”

Sauerberg: A blog is a good example. It’s endless and beginning-less. It’s endless flow. It’s a process. To put it another way, before, in the old days, you had very few able to read and write. They were seen as wise, most of them. Everybody else had to rely on their words, their interpretation of what was written.

DS: And what of the navigators in the new era?

Pettitt: Their authority will be on the basis of their track record, I think. In the world of rumor, you believe the people who were right last time.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman. Tags: