I’ve noticed over the last couple of years the rise of an interesting new theory of human history, which I’ll call Accidentalism. Although it may have broader implications, it has tended to be applied mainly to the history of media. In short, the theory posits, or, more typically, takes as a given, that the media of the past developed as a result of a series of accidents. Technological accidents begot economic accidents, which begot accidents of production and consumption, and human beings tumbled around in all those accidents like socks in a dryer.
Let me point to two examples I’ve come across in the last couple of days. In an email exchange about “the future of publishing” between Sean Cranbury and Hugh McGuire, McGuire argues that the printed book, as well as our attachment to it, is a fluke. We’ve been deceived by randomness. “Our notion of a book as such a fixed thing,” he says, “is an accident of history, an accident of technology.” This technological accident led to other accidents in production and distribution, such as “the fixed model of the publishing house.” Cranbury replies: “I love a number of things about your last message, but invoking … the notion of ‘accidents’ — of history or technology or whatever — that become adopted standards which we are reluctant to relinquish, are especially invigorating ideas.”
In a speech at Harvard earlier this week, Clay Shirky also gave voice to the “accident” theme, this time in regard to printed newspapers rather than printed books: “Some time between the rise of the penny press and the end of the Second World War, we had a very unusual circumstance — and I think especially in the United States — where we had commercial entities producing critical public goods … Now, it’s unusual to have that degree of focus on essentially both missions — both making a profit and producing this kind of public value. But that was the historic circumstance, and it lasted for decades. But it was an accident.” Shirky, in this particular speech, doesn’t explain the nature of this “accident.” But he did lay out his view more fully in an earlier essay about newspapers, in which he portrayed the traditional newspaper business as an accidental result of the technology of printing:
The expense of printing created an environment where Wal-Mart was willing to subsidize the Baghdad bureau. This wasn’t because of any deep link between advertising and reporting, nor was it about any real desire on the part of Wal-Mart to have their marketing budget go to international correspondents. It was just an accident … That the relationship between advertisers, publishers, and journalists has been ratified by a century of cultural practice doesn’t make it any less accidental … For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.
Now, I understand what the Accidentalists are getting at: Technology builds on technology, and at any given time in human history only certain technologies are in the realm of the possible and of those only a subset will actually be developed and put to use. Those technologies will in turn influence the means of production and the modes of consumption both directly (through the characteristics of the technologies themselves) and indirectly (through the economic tradeoffs inherent in using the technologies). Every technology, every means of production, every mode of consumption is hence provisional. Something better or at least cheaper or more convenient may come along tomorrow and displace what we depend on today.
All that’s true. But is it really accurate to describe the process as fundamentally accidental? Does the word “accidental” accurately reflect the complexities of technological and economic development? I don’t think it does. In fact, I think it’s difficult to imagine a poorer choice of word. When you describe an event or a thing as an accident, what you are doing is draining it of all human content. You are saying that human intention and will and desire played no part in its occurrence. A volcano is an accident in human history (if not natural history), and if it’s a big enough one it may well influence the course of that history. But the the book, the printing press, the publishing house, the newspaper, and the newspaper company are not volcanoes. Their development was guided not just by blind circumstance but by human intent and desire. They represent, not just in the abstract but in their concrete forms, something that people wanted and that people consciously brought into being, for human purposes.
Take the technology of the book. Far from bursting forth suddenly from Gutenberg’s press in the fifteenth century, the development of the book, as Eric Havelock, among others, has explained, began with the development of symbols to represent human language many millennia ago. In the eighth century BC, or thereabouts, the Greeks created a particularly refined version of these symbols, distilling the entirety of spoken language into an alphabet consisting of a mere 24 phonetic symbols – a brilliant system that much of the world continues to use today, in one form or another. The words and sentences formed from the letters of the alphabet, and other writing systems, have been inscribed on a series of writing media – the clay tablet, the papyrus and then the parchment scroll, the wax tablet, the series of wax tablets bound with string, the codex of pages of parchment or paper bound together to form the scribal book, and the printed book. Each of those general media technologies, in turn, were subtly or dramatically reshaped by all manner of technological refinement throughout their individual histories. The scribal book, for instance, advanced enormously for well over 1,000 years before Gutenberg invented his movable type press. Indeed, Gutenberg’s bible was a meticulous copy of the form of a scribal book. And, in the 550 years since Gutenberg, we’ve seen enormous refinements to both the printing press and its products.
Is the printed book, then, “an accident of history, an accident of technology”? Of course not. The myriad refinements in the technology of the written and published word over the last few millennia were not mere byproducts of a mechanical and inhuman process of blind technological advance. They were shaped by human intent. The wax tablet was invented not because man suddenly had the technologies of the wooden frame and of wax at his disposal, but because society wanted a cheap, informal writing medium that would be easy for individuals, and particularly students, to use and reuse to take notes and jot down ideas. The wax tablet, in other words, reflected a human desire to make writing more personal than had been possible with tablets and scrolls. The wax tablet was anything but an “accident.”
The crucial refinements in the form of the scribal book – punctuation marks, paragraph divisions, chapter divisions, tables of contents, etc. – were all expressions of human desire and need, not the results of random technological or economic accidents. Yes, when Gutenberg invented his press, he was working within the limits of technological possibility. But his inspiration came from his desire, which was also a broad desire on the part of society as a whole, to widen the availability of the codex and other written works. The printing press did not create people’s desire to read books; people’s desire to read books created the printing press. To say that the printed book was an accident is not only profoundly cynical; it’s profoundly foolish.
The same goes for newspapers and the newspaper business. The form of both was indeed heavily influenced by the cost of buying and running a press and transporting bundles of paper – circumstances matter a great deal – but that doesn’t mean that their forms were “just an accident.” Unlike the book, the newspaper only becomes possible when the mass production of the written word becomes possible. And it was not long after Gutenberg’s invention of the press that the first broadsheets appeared in cities. Because people naturally desire, for practical and intellectual reasons, to know what’s going on around them – a desire that more than 1,500 years earlier had led Julius Caesar to have the news of the day posted on public billboards across the Roman empire – the broadsheets proved very popular. In response to that expression of human desire – a desire strong enough that people were willing to pay to have it satisfied – entrepreneurs began to set up newspaper businesses and hire reporters and organize systems of distribution.
Of course, once people started getting the news, they naturally wanted more of it. But there were, alas, strict limits on the amount of money an average citizen could pay for a newspaper. So even as their circulation grew, it remained difficult for newspapers to fulfill people’s desire for more and more various news. Expansion required more capital and more employees than they could afford. Fortunately for both the newspaper reader and the newspaper publisher, merchants were looking for ways to publicize their goods to a wider clientele, and newspaper advertisements provided a perfect fit for their needs. So in the early years of the 1700s, newspapers began to run ads, providing a new source of income that allowed them to better fulfill the desires of readers, by, for example, paying foreign correspondents and, later, photographers, while also making more money themselves. Some of the new advertising money also went to the hiring of copy editors, proofreaders, and fact checkers, again in response to people’s desires, in this case for accurate, clearly written reports.
This was, to be sure, a system of economic subsidization but it was, equally, a system of human symbiosis, in which the various desires of publishers, journalists, advertisers, and citizens came into a happy and mutually supportive balance. To see the arrangement only in economic terms is to miss much of the story, which is a story not of accident but of conscious, purposeful action undertaken within the constraints of technological and economic possibility.
I’m going to resist the temptation to get into a discussion of today’s news business, or the broader question of whether it’s all that unusual for public goods to be produced in commercial systems, but I will point out that as the web unravels the system of economic subsidization on which newspapers depended, it is also unraveling the system of symbiosis that brought great benefits to the newspaper reader.
There is some truth in Accidentalism, but it is only a small part of the whole truth, which is much messier and much more interesting. The Accidentalists are promoting a simplistic and distorted version of media history. They are also ignoring an important implication of their own theory. If we suspend our disbelief and accept the Accidentalist view that both the media of the past and the means of their production were accidents, then we have to also view the media of today and the means of their production as accidents. If the book is a historical accident, then the web is a historical accident. If the newspaper publisher is a historical accident, then the blogger is a historical accident. To think otherwise – to think that all mankind’s past blundering has brought us suddenly to a perfected state, that the long chain of accidents has been broken in (surprise!) our very own lifetime – is to abandon any pretense of a consistent and rational view of history and leap into the realm of quasi-religious faith. We were lost, and now we’re found!
And there’s the rub, I think. Accidentalism is a theory of convenience. It is, it seems to me, a fantasy version of history conjured up to support a popular and largely faith-based ideology, an ideology built on the belief that our new digital media landscape represents a great human advance over all that’s come before. Accidentalism provides an easy way to denigrate and dismiss the past: Oh, our poor, benighted forebears: they never even realized that all they held dear was merely accidental. “Accident,” I hardly need point out, is a word with negative connotations. Those to whom accidents happen are victims. Every time we pick up a printed book or newspaper, the Accidentalists imply, we turn ourselves into victims of technological accidents.
Accidentalism, in other words. provides the perfect backdrop for the liberation mythology promoted by many of the web’s most ardent proponents, which is built on the idea that old technology put us in chains and new technology is breaking those chains. In order to underscore (and place beyond debate) the societal and personal benefits of the web, they feel compelled to paint a weirdly dark caricature of the past, portraying those human beings who had the misfortune to live before, say, 1990 as passive and enervated, victims of an (accidental!) media complex that circumscribed and diminished their lives and thoughts. One need not be a fan of old-school mass media to see that this picture is a clumsily rendered fake.
“We should always be suspicious of the contempt that flows beneath the surface of idealization,” wrote Paul Duguid in an essay collected in the 1996 volume The Future of the Book. “And we should note how often the characterization of ‘them’ is in fact a self-aggrandizement of ‘us.’” Duguid goes on to describe how the “language of liberty” has been wrapped around the new digital technologies of information creation and transmission:
Where once we had ghosts in machines, now we have information in objects like books. Technology is thus called upon to do for information what theology sought to do for the soul … The book, no longer its incarnation, has been reduced to the incarceration of the word. But a technological Prospero seems at last to be at hand to free the informational Ariel from the cleft pine (or wood products) in which he has been trapped … [The liberationist view] is both corrupting and misleading. As with so much optimistic futurology, it woos us to jump by highlighting the frying pan and hiding the fire. In the face of such arguments, we do better to remember … how Ariel quickly discovered that the same magic that liberated him from the tree indentured him to Prospero.
Any theory of the future that requires a distortion of the past should be greeted not with applause but suspicion.