The key idea that captures the transitions humankind is currently undergoing is the emancipation of authorship.
How many authors have there been on Earth throughout all of history?
No one knows the precise number, though if you really tried to come up with a figure, you’d probably conclude the following: across the entire history of humankind, it’s unlikely that more than 300 million individuals have published their ideas beyond their immediate physical surroundings.
Google Books, having taken upon itself the task of digitising all books ever written, declared in August 2010 that 129,864,880 books had been published. An alternative source offers the following figures: 39 million scientific articles have been published since the beginning of the nineteenth century. You would probably be safe in estimating a comparable or even larger number of journalists across 400 years of media activity. This means that there have been on the order of tens of millions of journalistic and academic authors. (The number of forgotten authors from earlier periods is low and does not have much of an impact on these calculations.)
But now, all of a sudden, thanks to the Internet, more than 2 billion people have free access to public authorship. In the space of approximately twenty years – the blink of an eye, historically speaking – more authors have appeared than during the previous 6,000 years of literary civilisation. (By authors I mean people capable of publishing their views beyond the reach of their personal contacts.) From 300 million across all history to 2 billion or more within a mere fragment of time: this is a real explosion in authorship.
Predictions suggest the world’s population will stabilise at 10 to 12 billion after a demographic transition. In countries where the Internet is already well established, penetration is around 80% (all legally capable adults). Eighty per cent appears to be the standard Internet penetration for a digitised society. If this is the case, once the world’s population has stabilised, the potential number of authors will reach 8 to 9 billion, stabilising there. At present the number is only 2.4 billion.
We haven’t yet reached this end point; we are still in the midst of the explosion of authorship. In the process, we are experiencing growing pains and are unable to evaluate its conditions and consequences.
However, comparable processes have already taken place, also connected with the explosive release of content.
The first emancipation of content is related to the appearance of the demotic script of Ancient Egypt around the 7th century BC, a phenomenon that gave common people the ability to write. This represented the emancipation of writing. As a result, the palaces and temples lost their monopoly over the production of information. This process took several hundred years, leading to the downfall of Ancient Kingdoms. In its aftermath, new civilisations appeared, each armed with a phonetic script: Greece captured minds, while Rome captured lands.
The second emancipation of content followed the invention by Johannes Gutenberg of the printing press around 1445. The ability to print multiple copies of a book reduced its cost, giving the common people access to the Bible and ancient texts. This represented the emancipation of reading. Then came the Reformation, religious wars and political revolutions. Palaces and temples once again lost their monopoly, this time over the interpretation of content. As a result of Gutenberg’s invention, monarchs were beheaded, world maps were redrawn, vaccinations were developed and man went into space. Modern society and modern economics were born.
What we are experiencing now is the third emancipation of content: the emancipation of authorship. Personal computers as well as mobile devices with Internet connectivity have given all individuals the unlimited right to share their thoughts with others, whatever their reason, or even if they have no reason. This does not mean that every private message is worthy of attention. It means that the palaces and places of worship have again lost their monopoly, this time over the production of meaning.
If such historical analogies are accurate, then we should also expect comparable cataclysms. The powers of the old authorities (the clergy, the aristocracy, the state) have always collapsed along with their loss of sacral control over information. As a result, the social, political and economic status quo falls apart. With every release of content, society sheds its old form, like a snake sheds its skin.
Excerpted from: Human as media. The emancipation of authorship – by Andrey Miroshnichenko
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