Digital Humanities Quarterly has released a preview version of Elyse Graham’s (SUNY Stony Brook) article “The Printing Press as Metaphor,” which examines the popular use of historical technologies of print as metaphors for making sense of our changing media and information landscape.
Situating an examination of this rhetoric within a larger discussion of the market forces that affect rhetorical practice, I seek to delimit a context for the emergence of a distinctive set of contemporary tropes. What do these kinds of historical analogy mean for the ways in which we make use of history, and what do they mean for the ways in which we as historians take the long view? Why, in particular, do we turn to the rise of the printing press as our standard analogy for the rise of the internet? What meanings does this metaphor constrain, what values does it offer to overwhelm those constraints, and what value does metaphoric thinking in general hold for analysis in media studies?
Graham argues that the printing press metaphor is useful because of our “nebulous” understanding of its boundaries and our ability to apply it without need for specific reference.
In short, when we use the printing press as a metaphor for changes in our information culture, we succumb to anachronism twice. First, this metaphorical use relies on a now-belated concept, dating to the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, of a single artifact that can represent a wider matrix of political, social, cultural, and institutional effects while diffusing specific claims about what those effects might be.
Graham goes on to explore the culture of Silicon Valley as illustrative of “the marketplace value of the printing press metaphor.” The article closes with a consideration how her argument can be applied to the digital humanities.
This is just one reason to study the traditional humanities alongside new technologies that has nothing to do with whether computers are revolutionary… The printing press and its direct descendants might fade from use, but the humanities will not disappear until we have done with metaphor.