“The Pen is a Virgin, the Printing Press a Whore”

My blog focuses partly on how social media is affecting the way that we share information on the Internet.

Thus, I wanted to do a post about the debate which exists in the Social Informatics discipline about the influence of new communication technology on society in general, with a particular focus on the Internet. I owe the idea for this post to a Social Informatics class that I am in right now.

A debate in academia?  What a surprise!

One of the most intriguing aspects of the growth of the Internet has been a debate on whether or not the Internet has power over us, or if we have power of it. This post will provide a very brief and admittedly oversimplified review of that debate.

Those who assert that new technology (such as the Internet) changes us without our consent are technological determinants, while those who assert that we have power over how new technology influences us are social constructionists of technology.

A quick review of these two perspectives follows, and then I’ll tell you where I stand. And then, I encourage you to comment to tell me where you stand.

Beware of the (Evil)net, it will change you! (Technological Determinist).

Anytime that you hear somebody say that Social Media is “making us” do something against our will, they are looking at things from a technologically deterministic viewpoint. A comment such as, “Facebook is ruining our ability to be social in real life”, for example, assumes that Facebook has an inherent power over us.

In Personal Connections In The Digital Age (2010), Nancy Baym describes technological determinism as a perspective “in which technology is conceptualized as an external agent that acts upon and changes society” [1].  Thus, from this perspective, new technology influences society, whether or not society wants it to.

Technology has a mind of it’s own.

An example of a deterministic viewpoint is that the growth of TV in the 20th century has demoralized our society because people spend less time reading and more time watching television. This argument illogically assumes that people have been over powered by television, and that they have had no agency in deciding how their television viewing habits would influence their other habits (such as reading).

While the technological determinist give all of the credit of power to the technologies, the next perspective gives all the credit to the users of the technologies.

The Internet can be a godsend, if we use it as one! (Social Constructionist).

This perspective asserts that the developments of new technologies are the result of social processes and needs that arise over time. Baym (2011) says that “rather than viewing social change as a consequence of new media,” the social constructionist perspective  “views new technologies and their uses as consequences of social factors” [2].

Baym (2011) uses a quote from Nye (1997) to exemplify how followers of the social constructionist viewpoint perceive the technological deterministic viewpoint that I discussed above. The social constructions think that the technologically deterministic perspectives are,

“inadequate as explanations and dangerously misleading [because] human beings, not machines, are the agents of change, as men and women introduce new systems of machines that alter their life world” [3].

Thus, according to this constructionist viewpoint, the Internet and TV only have as much power over society as we give to them. We invented these technologies, and thus we control how much we let them influence us.

This debate between whether new technology controls us or if we control it is not a new one.

“The pen is a virgin, the printing press a whore” [4]

The above quote comes from Nick Bilton’s I Live In The Future & Here’s How It Works (2010), an excellent book about how the growth of the Internet and Social Media is affecting our daily interactions with each other and with media. The quote comes from a 16th century Venetian judge, who was describing a viewpoint of the printing press.

Before the invention of the printing press in 1452 by Gutenberg, books were handmade by monks, sometimes weighed more than fifty pounds, and were as wide as modern day newspapers.[5]  As a result, they were highly treasured, and few and far between. In fact, Bilton points out that before the printing press, one of the biggest libraries in Europe was housed at the University of Cambridge, with a total of 122 books.[6] He goes on to say that today, the same university has a collection of over seven million books.

Gutenberg Printing Press. The machine that changed the world!

As pointed out by the library example, the invention of the printing press eventually led to the mass production of books.

Just as some people today might fear the development of new technologies such as the Internet, people such as the Venetian judge feared the printing press because it meant that more people would now have the power to share their ideas without the approval of monks (who used to hand write the Bibles). The printing press is not the only technological innovation in history that has been feared.

Bilton brings up the example of the telephone and points out that the invention of the telephone was also feared because some thought it would lead to people going out less and not going to concerts and churches, because they could now listen to those services over the telephone. He points to a New York Times article from 1876, which stated that “the telephone, by bringing music and ministers into every home, will empty the concert halls and the churches” [7].

Bilton also goes on to discuss the fear that people had of the phonograph, the early record player and precursor to the CD. Another Times article is quoted as saying “There is a good reason to believe that if the phonograph proves to be what its inventor claims that it is, both book-making and reading will fall into disuse” [8].

Obviously, the telephone did not stop people from attending concerts and churches, and the phonograph did not stop us from reading books.

However, these seemingly ridiculous fears about the telephone and the phonograph were as real to the people back then as modern day fears are about the Internet to some people.

The only thing to fear, is fear of the Internet itself. (Where I stand).

If I have learned anything so far in life, it’s that history repeats itself. Because of this, I am confident in saying that I am definitely not a technological determinist.

As I see it, the fear of new media has been proven as being irrational in the past, so it is safe to assume that the fear that some people today have concerning the growth of the Internets’ influence on us is also an irrational one which will eventually be proven wrong.

I lean more towards the social construction of technology perspective than I do towards the technological determinist perspective.  As I mentioned above, I think that history proves that fear of technology has been irrational every time before (we always seem to over-emphasize the negative impact that a new technology will have on us), so it would be silly to assume that the modern day fear of the Internet will somehow become justified in the future.

Baym quotes  several people who have the same viewpoint as I do, one of them says that

“The problem with people and the Internet is not the Internet but what people do with it. The same is true of a knife. I was under the knife having lifesaving surgery the same day someone across town was murdered by one” [9].

While I lean towards the social constructionist viewpoint, I don’t think that is correct 100% of the time either. Thus, I am putting my faith in a third perspective…

We have more than two sides to choose from? That seems anti-American!

Unlike the democratic system in the USA (I had to insert this fun connection!), there are more than two realistic options when looking at this debate on technology.

The third option represents the ‘independents’ of the debate, if you will, and focuses on a combination of the first two perspectives.

It makes no sense to fight against the power of the Internet.

Baym states that this third perspective is known as social shaping, and that this perspective tells us that “we need to consider how societal circumstances give rise to technology, what specific possibilities and constraints technologies offer, and actual practices of use as those possibilities and constraints are taken up, rejected, and reworked in everyday life”. [10] This perspective admits that technology can be helpful towards society at times, and also hurtful at other times.

Where do YOU stand?

If you are reading this blog right now, you are most likely a frequent user of the Internet, and thus are someone whose opinion on this debate matters.

Furthermore, you probably should have an opinion on this debate, because the Internet and Social Media are not going away. Even if you choose to not use Social Media, for example, there is a good chance that people whom you interact with still do, thus it is very hard to get away from it and from people talking about it.

If for no other reason but to out-smart your friends the next time the topic of the Internet comes up, you should have an opinion on this topic!

So, where do you stand?



[1] Baym, 2010, p. 25.

[2] Baym, 2010, p. 44.

[3] Baym, 2010, p.39.

[4] Bilton, 2010, p. 53.

[5] Bilton, 2010, pp. 50-52.

[6] Bilton, 2010, p. 51.

[7] Bilton, 2010, p. 46.

[8]Bilton, 2010, p. 47.

[9] Baym, 2011. P.46.

[10] Baym, 2011. P.45.

4 thoughts on ““The Pen is a Virgin, the Printing Press a Whore”

  1. Do you know anything about the quote from someone at the time of the Printing Press about how it will encourage immorality and pornography, etc?

  2. Do you know anything about the quote from someone at the time of the Printing Press about how it will encourage immorality and pornography, etc? Written by someone concerned with the Gutenberg press

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