At the heart of Clay Shirky’s impressive new essay is a reference to Elizabeth Eisenstein’s work on the transition between manuscript and print culture, with its redrafting and recasting of social and institutional frameworks. What’s not mentioned (only because it’s not pertinent to Clay’s argument) is the extent to which manuscript culture had itself gone through significant changes in the century before Gutenberg: private copy-shops in large cities served a bourgeois clientele whose interests lay outside monastic and academic remits. With apologies for the dodgy teleology, literary production was ripe for print.
The easiest comparison, perhaps, is to the multimedia CD-ROM of the early 1990s. (Amy Virshup’s 1993 piece on Voyager reads like ancient history now.) Except I’m not sure that’s right, and can’t help thinking that we’re still not quite at the revolutionary moment. Although as Clay points out, we won’t know it until long after it happens.