It was called “The Great Mutation.” It probably should have been called “The Great Fear.”
It appeared in the early 1960s, as a group of presentations by the American Historical Society, each one a warning cry about a “run-away technology” which was going to bring about “the loss of mankind’s memory.”
This group of historians were actually bemoaning the adoption of microfiche and photocopiers into their profession. Even the society’s president expressed his genuine fear of “data processing machines” and “those frightening projected scanning devices.”
This fear has a straight line all the way back to mid-15th Germany. This was when Gutenberg’s business partner — John Fust — arrived at the Sorbonne in Paris with a dozen freshly printed bibles, the first ones to be made using moveable type. Believing he would be welcomed with open arms, Fust was instead met with anger and outrage. The only possible explanation for the appearance of numerous copies of the exact same book was witchcraft. The police were called, and a bonfire was made — not for the books but for Fust himself. (Poor Fust — he did manage to escape with his life, only to die from the plague.)
No one at the Sorbonne was truly worried about witchcraft, but “the runaway technology” of the printing press chilled their blood. The scholars expressed the exact same fear their 1960 counterparts did: information overload. They would be drowned in a sea of too many publications. There would simply be too much to choose from, making it impossible to discern the good from the bad. Readers would be reduced to feelings of helplessness.
Follow that straight line past 1960 to the present, and all of this sounds very familiar. The internet and digital technologies have raised the exact same alarms expressed by Gutenberg’s contemporaries. The digitization of text has completely transformed the way people distribute, consume, and interact with information; once again freezing the blood of many.
The eBook really struck the most terror, with the publishing industry declaring that it would be the end to printed books. This led to many feeling the death of print would be the death of literacy. Yet both notions have turned out to be absurd. Digital information, including eBooks, have turned out to coexist quite nicely with their printed older siblings. And any glance at a grocery store checkout will show a mass display of newly printed magazines and paperbacks. While digital technology has displaced some print, it is nowhere near on the way out.
Where that line goes into the future will be difficult to predict. But one Nelson playwright has envisioned it quite well.
‘Captain Future’ is written by Lucas Myers, and it is a one-man play created for younger audiences. In it, the evil Dr. SamGoogApplesoftsung has taken over the world through a mixture of highly-addictive video games and social media apps. This has caused everyone to stop reading, which causes everyone to stop imagining. With the help of audience participation, Captain Future must travel through time to stop Dr. SamGoogApplesoftsung and save everyone’s imagination.
Myers addresses the fear of new technology better than most, by exploring why humans began to read in the first place, instead of narrowly focusing on the physical how. A lesson the American Historical Association of the 1960s could have greatly used.
‘Captain Future’ is on this Sunday, Jan. 15, at 3 p.m. at the Key City Theatre.
Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library