This is the second of three posts on general purpose technologies (GPTs) – and on what their history tells us about artificial intelligence. Click here for the first post in the series.
2. The Printing Press: A Revolutionary General Purpose Technology
German inventor Johannes Gutenberg introduced the movable type printing press around 1450. The invention spread fast, with more than 1,000 presses operating across Europe by 1500 – and millions of books and pamphlets in print. Like most GPTs, the invention created new jobs, like printers, bookbinders, ink manufacturers, pamphleteers, journalists, and many others. The printing press also increased Europe’s population of librarians, bureaucrats, university professors, and other literate workers. However, unlike steam power and other modern GPTs, the printing press probably did not destroy many jobs. The main “employees” replaced were monks who copied books and other manuscripts by hand. And the monks had other reasons to exist.
Yet the printing press did bring about momentous change – arguably as much as any technology of the past 10,000 years. It altered the way we generate and manage information. AI has a similar potential, so the history of the printing press offers particularly valuable insights into AI’s future. Those insights are both encouraging and troubling.
Renaissance Progress and the Wars of the Reformation
Easy circulation of text meant more Europeans could afford written material, which led to more readers. This growing literate population began to absorb old and new ideas more easily and more often. They could also check each other’s sources more easily, thanks to those sources’ wider distribution. So they could criticize and build on useful theories. That led to an intellectual revolution (if we can call a multi-century change a revolution). Analysis, criticism, and research began to fuel European thinking. These were not new practices, but they grew more central during the Renaissance. And they competed less with rival modes of thought, like superstition, faith, and deference to authority.
Partly as a result, the century following Gutenberg’s invention brought improvements in banking, commerce, agriculture, navigation, manufacturing, science, government, and art. Europe grew from Medieval backwater to Renaissance powerhouse. And its growth continued from there. Europe’s population doubled between 1500 and 1750, and its wealth soared.
That sort of change does not come without disruption. In 1517, Martin Luther, a priest and professor, penned a detailed critique of the Church. Luther allegedly nailed his the “Ninety Five Theses” to the door of the All-Saints Church in Wittenburg, Germany. Before the printing press, the controversy might have ended with an academic debate at the nearby university. Instead, Luther’s ideas circulated all over Europe and stirred up a hornet’s nest of anger at the Church. Delighted with his unexpected fame, Luther published more and more assertive protests, and others soon joined him. Their rebellion became the Protestant Reformation. It broke Western Europe’s single church into hostile, competing versions of Christianity.
Few if any in the 1500s recognized that the printing press had closed the door on any hope of a single, unified belief. Few realized that intellectual unity isn’t possible when so many can spread their own ideas so easily. (Communists, fascists, and others still hadn’t gotten the message by the 20th century.) As a result, Europe’s competing powers tried to force their views on everyone else or at least on as many as possible. That led to repeated war between Protestant and Catholic rulers and churches. These Wars of the Reformation (a.k.a. Wars of Religion) lasted more than 150 years. They devastated large parts of Europe and killed tens of millions. Germany suffered most, losing an estimated 30% of its people in just one of these wars.
Social and Political Revolution
Before the Reformation, Europe’s kings, nobles, and priests had cooperated in a loose union under the Pope and the one Church, called Christendom. The wars of the Reformation destroyed Christendom. Church power plummeted, even in lands that remained Catholic. The nobles’ power fell too; they declined from independent power centers to staff for the kings’ armies and bureaucracies. The kings, on the other hand, grew richer and more powerful, thanks to the bureaucracies and expensive weapons made possible by improving technology and literacy.
The easy availability of books also spread literacy to the middle class and encouraged its growth. Europe’s merchants, bankers, lawyers, doctors, scholars, and other professionals grew more numerous, wealthier, and more influential.
The printing press kept distributing new ideas, many influenced by the values of the rising middle class and the success of Renaissance science. During the late 1600s and 1700s, the new thinking evolved into a movement called the Enlightenment. Europeans embraced reason and developed the scientific method. Once again, science and technology raced ahead.
The new thinking also led to beliefs in equality, democracy, and nationalism – spread once again by printed books and pamphlets. These ideas sparked the American and French Revolutions in the late 1700s and many more in the 1800s, bringing both freedom and more bloodshed.
The Printing Press and AI
We live in the aftermath of the Enlightenment, and its logic still guides our thinking. But the Kissinger article mentioned at the start of this series suggests AI will trigger a new and different intellectual revolution. Generative AI in particular gives us a tool for answering questions and managing knowledge. But unlike the printing press, it does so in mysterious ways, largely invisible to users and even to its inventors. As Kissinger and and his co-authors put it:
Enlightenment science accumulated certainties; the new AI generates cumulative ambiguities. … In the age of AI, riddles are solved by processes that remain unknown. Inherently, highly complex AI furthers human knowledge but not human understanding …. Yet at the same time AI, when coupled with human reason, stands to be a more powerful means of discovery than human reason alone.1Kissinger, Schmidt, Huttenlocher, “ChatGPT Heralds an Intellectual Revolution: Generative artificial intelligence presents a philosophical and practical challenge on a scale not experienced since the start of the Enlightenment,” The Wall St. Journal, Feb. 24, 2023.
Whether or not Kissinger and co. have the details right, they highlight AI’s power to change the way we develop new ideas, communicate, and think. The printing press had those same powers. That suggests AI could bring us a new enlightenment, making the world a better place. But the printing press also disrupted the social, religious, and political order, leading to bloodshed. People did not know how to live in the new world. So they fought and killed over competing visions of the good. We could face the same uncertainty, leading to our own age of war.
Maybe we’re better prepared than Renaissance and Enlightenment Europeans were. They had much less experience of new technologies. And Renaissance Europeans thought God had handed down their social and political order, so it should not change. We, on the other hand, live with and expect change.
Artificial intelligence, then, offers hope for a better world, and it might come at a price we can bear to pay. But there is no use sugarcoating the risk. The comparison between AI and the printing press should scare us.
Few of history’s general purpose technologies rival the printing press – in terms of power to disrupt and improve society. But an earlier GPT changed the world even more. Click here to read the final post in this series, which compares AI to farming.
© 2023 by David W. Tollen. All rights reserved.
- The Sack of Magedburg, 1631, Matthäus Merian, c. 1659
- Beginning of book Genesis in 42-line Gutenberg bible (fol. 5r of vol. 1 in illuminated copy of Staatsbibliothek Berlin), c. 1455
- Portrait of Louis XIV of France, Attributed to Jean Nocret, c. 1685 – cropped
- The Storming of the Bastille, Jean-Pierre Houël, 1789 – cropped by Jaredzimmerman (WMF), through Wikimedia Commons
- Perhaps the mysteries of AI will lead us to new forms of worship, David W. Tollen, NightCafe, 2023
- 1Kissinger, Schmidt, Huttenlocher, “ChatGPT Heralds an Intellectual Revolution: Generative artificial intelligence presents a philosophical and practical challenge on a scale not experienced since the start of the Enlightenment,” The Wall St. Journal, Feb. 24, 2023.