And just who is Donn Downing? He's a former Time correspondent who covered the Lyndon Johnson White House, later the Supreme Court and Justice Department and eventually reported from Los Angeles and Vietnam. He should know almost everything about everything, right? Well, the bad news is that he just heard about the Jesuit scholar Walter Ong a few months ago. The good news is that, at last, he did hear about Walter Ong – through, ta-ra ta-ra! – the Internet. Here, we give you Downing's ruminations about the possible social implications of the Internet, the history of printing and its huge impact on the Reformation, and the unintended consequences of technology. This is from a talk he gave to Phi Beta Kappa of Northern California at the Asilomar Conference Center in Carmel, California, on Feb. 17. Downing lives in Novato, California, which is a half hour's drive north of San Francisco. You can email him at

A Very Small Obsession & Just Who is Walter Ong?

Donn Downing

Good morning and my thanks to Jean James (Asilomar Conference Organizer) for asking whether I wished to precede or follow Leonard Shlain’s overview of his book, The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image.

[Editor's note: Shlain is Chief of Laparoscopic Surgery for the California Pacific Medical Center. In his book, he proposes that the rise of alphabetic literacy - the process of reading and writing – has fundamentally reconfigured the human brain, and brought about profound changes in history, religion, and gender relations. Making remarkable connections across brain function, myth, and anthropology, Leonard Shlain shows why agricultural preliterate cultures were principally informed by holistic, right-brain modes that venerated the Goddess and feminine values and images. Writing, particularly alphabets, drove cultures toward linear left-brain thinking. This shift upset the balance between men and women, initiated the decline of the feminine, and also ushered in the reign of patriarchy and misogyny. Shlain ends his book with an optimistic appraisal that the proliferation of images in film, TV, graphics, and computers is once again reconfiguring the brain by encouraging right hemispheric modes of thought and bringing about the reemergence of the feminine.]

I chose to follow Dr. Shlain's sweeping view of the collision between alphabet and the image. Someone had to plow some difficult ground so I could plant my little seed.

Interspersed with my overhead foils today are a group of beautiful photographs of books taken by Abelardo Morell in his book “a book of books” published last year. They illustrate – for me at least – the architectural solidity of books, the object as container of information, knowledge, alarm and delight. In the digital world, the container disappears. The contents are everywhere and nowhere.

This little seed I call my very small obsession. Small obsessions are not as dangerous as large ones. Even small obsessions about vast subjects like media, information and communication seem more manageable. So I use the word “small” to describe my obsession, which are stored in two print cases in a small office in my Novato, California home.

They contain a collection of mostly single printed pages that were products of the first 50 years of print technology in Europe. This period is generally called the incunabula or birth period of printing, running roughly from the 1440s through 1500. They now number 548 leaves which never fails to astonish me.

A respected antique book dealer who was the source for most of their number believes it may be among the largest single collection in private hands. “Private hands” is the operative phrase here.  The Vatican Library, the Biblioteque Nationale, the British Museum, the Bodleian Library in Oxford, the Morgan and Huntington libraries in the US and many others house many more, both leaves and whole books of great value. But they are generally locked away, available only to specialists and qualified researchers who are required to wear white gloves when examining them.

Somehow I find it difficult to believe it to be the largest collection in private hands but whether it is or is not isn’t very important, really. What does astonish me is that they are in my little office, at the western edge of the continent that is arguably perhaps the farthest geographical extension of the Western mentality. This is perhaps a politically incorrect concept at a moment when globalization is the 800-pound guerilla in the room.

But it seems to me that they are a resource seeking a public purpose. That is what I want to address.

That public purpose may have been neatly suggested in a RAND Corporation paper several years ago. The paper was titled “The Information Age and the Printing Press: Looking Backward to See Ahead.” It was prepared by James Dewar, an analyst at the RAND Corporation. RAND, as you know, is the Santa Monica think tank funded mostly by the U.S. Air Force during the Cold War. Since the end of Cold War, RAND has branched out beyond military strategic analysis and gaming to include education, healthcare, analysis of police operations, terrorism and the implications of today’s information age and digital communications. The paper was prepared as a preliminary document to a large conference on networked computers, the web and digital communications. The some 40 heavyweight participants included Francis Fukuyama, who several years ago announced the End of History, perhaps prematurely.  Dewar came to three, highly speculative conclusions about the information age now occurring and barely out of its own incunabula period.

    First, changes in this information age will be as dramatic as those in the Middle Ages in Europe. The printing press has been implicated in the Reformation, the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution, all of which had profound effects on their eras. Equally profound changes will follow on this information age.

    Second, the future of the information age will be dominated by unintended consequences. The Protestant Reformation and the shift from an earth-centered to a sun-centered universe were among the unintended consequences of the printing press era. We are already seeing unintended consequences in the information age that are dominating intended ones and more will follow.

    Finally, it will be decades before we see the full effects of this information age. The important effects of the printing press era were not seen clearly for more than 100 years. While events are significantly faster today, it could be decades before the winners and losers of the information age are apparent. Even today, significant (and permanent) cultural change does not happen quickly.

Since the subject of information and communication is a vast one, rich with incredible scholarship that goes far beyond my capabilities, I needed a focus, a reference point, an anchor so as not to be set adrift among mere surface currents. I chose the year 1795. That was the year that Napoleon entered Cairo and shortly after established the first secular printing press in the Islamic world. While Islamic princes permitted printers of Jewish and Christian religious texts, the printing of the Koran simply was not acceptable because it threatened the fundamental oral transmission of the work.

Now that same year in England, Thomas Paine’s “Rights of Man”, had been in print three years. Paine was a philosophical mate of Thomas Jefferson and the author of the first American best seller – “Common Sense.” “Rights of Man” was Paine’s published response to Edmund Burke’s attack on the French Revolution. Before it went out of print in 1810, 1.5 million copies had been produced and sold. That is one copy of the book for every tenth man, woman and child in England, Scotland and Wales.

For such demand and saturation to occur, layers of historical, cultural and – as Leonard Shlain might argue – cognitive events had to already be in place. The end to the religious wars, relatively high literacy rates, the infusion of secular ideas, the idea of a civil authority separate from religious authority had to be in play. By then Erasmus and Luther’s attacks on the authority of Rome had already occurred, the Reformation and Counter Reformation was past history, Latin had declined in favor of vernacular literatures and national identities, an English king had lost his head, the Enlightenment and science established, Voltaire, Hume, Rousseau, Harvey, Spinoza and Locke had published and had been internalized by Jefferson. In short Europe’s printing presses had been chugging along for over 300 years.

Thus I keep asking myself a question that I am totally unqualified to answer. Could it be what we are now seeing and have been for the past half century or more are a series of events that 50 or 100 years from now will be described as an Islamic Reformation and Counter Reformation being played out in audio/visual mediums of an electronic and digital age? The Economist magazine in a January survey of Iran posed a similar question. If so, then why should anyone think that it would be any smoother or less difficult than the Western experience? And since cultural change is glacial, why should anyone think that it would not include episodes of violence, even great violence?

These questions suggest some of Dewar’s unintended consequences. And they fit my own thinking about the public value of this collection of early printing.

Very briefly they might serve as a visible, tactile component in any public venue or discussion, conference, museum or school exhibit on the nature, history and impact of technology and media; the study of communication, consciousness, culture, religious change, technological determinism, information theory and cybernetics; the past and future of libraries and universities; as well as oral, scribal, typographic and electronic cultures.

For example, placed in those airport exhibition spaces designed to soak up waiting time, they might remind travelers in so contemporary a setting that what is current has deep roots indeed. Americans tend to slight history and prefer technology. They certainly are in the thrall of this – the second information age - or third if one begins with writing itself. Am I crazy to think that general public access to 500 year old printed leaves of an earlier information age, properly and professionally exhibited in public spaces within the context of the current information deluge is worth proposing? Would it not provide - in a quiet way - a subtle frame of reference, an appropriate timeline to our current troubles?

Placed squarely within the context of contemporary events certainly fits current thinking. Leonard Shlain acknowledged the role of Marshall McLuhan in his work. McLuhan was a Canadian theorist who first proposed key ideas such as the medium is the message, the global village, hot and cool media, acoustic space and the laws of media. I first heard of McLuhan in the 60s. As a journalist I parroted the conventional wisdom of that time. I thought he was a bit of a kook with an impressionistic, visual writing style that was not within the tradition of serious academic work. Well McLuhan has undergone a revival over the past ten years due to the convergence of computing, telecommunications and digital media.  The revival has focused public attention on the social, cultural and psychological consequences of the media within which we swim and has spawned thousands of studies and hundreds of books. In the 60s Tom Wolfe asked,“What if he’s right?” “He Was!” replied the computer nerds of the 90s and Wired, the magazine of the digerati, naming him a patron saint.

So my hope here today is to make my small obsession yours and help us think through where this collection should end up, how it should be used and what organization could best make use of it.

The collection began innocently enough. Of course most things do. Four years ago my wife and I visited Taos, New Mexico. One sunny day I wandered into George Robinson’s cluttered little shop from which he mostly sold old maps. But on the wall were two leaves from the second edition of the 1613 King James Bible. I knew I wanted them, told myself that I could not afford them and was astonished to hear them priced at $100 each.

George later explained that there was not much of a market in single leaves. Book dealers generally disliked the trade as being more trouble than it was worth. Provenances were often doubtful since their origin often was through the breaking of books, considered sinful by all but the most ruthless book dealers. The time and trouble it took to inventory, research and sell them depressed the market. Dealers prefer trade in valuable old books that bring three- to seven-figure prices. So began my education.

Given our limited resources, books were out of the question. And anyway leaves were only incidentally about content, more about printing. To me they seemed to reach back 500 years to the technology of printing itself and its consequences. So we began adding to the collection, a leaf at a time.

When the object arrived we would examine them, look at the worm holes, admire the often beautiful printing, note the rubrication or illumination in red and blue inks added later and the inked marginal notes oxidized over time to burnt sienna, feel the weight of the paper perhaps made from rags collected from the victims of Plague.  Sometimes I imagined I could make out a greasy thumbprint, the residue of a 500 year old stew. I would think about where they had been, who had read this particular page, where and why, how they had survived.  There was a kind of magic in them, in the development of this art. Their sheer physicality connected me to that time. Gradually 50 or 60 leaves, located mostly through Internet searches, arrived.

Now at this point it is worth noting that with one exception, all that follows in my education on the subject began and was mediated through use of the Internet. There I met James Dewar of the RAND Corporation, who I have already introduced, the printing historian Elizabeth Eisenstein, the 16th century Italian military engineer Agotino Ramelli, the Jesuit intellectual Walter Ong and the academic Lance Strate and a host of people networked around their common interest and scattered around the world. There I might find an interesting reference which would send me off to the Bancroft or Moffett Library at UC Berkeley for a book. But my intermediary, my mentor, my program supervisor, my educational institution, my department head, my corporate manager, my virtual think tank was the Internet. I have yet to physically meet any of these people or groups. And, if you will pardon my naïvete, the power and accessibility of this intermediary continues to astonish me. No doubt, my use of the medium would be considered that of a rank amateur to the average bright 16-year-old.

And certainly has my number! My interests from previous orders are digitally stored in their huge database. Now when I sign on I get new recommendations – books on the Renaissance, Europe’s Religious Wars, Print and Digital communications, the Reformation and Counter Reformation and the cognitive sciences.

The sole exception was a thick catalogue from a book dealer received in October of 2000 announcing that a huge collection, 370 leaves assembled over a 30 year period by an Austrian scholar was being offered. After a little soul searching, we purchased them.   Later, the dealer told me that within two days of placing them on hold, two other dealers – dealers who would have sold them off one-by-one – expressed their own interest.  Then, a second group of 110 leaves was offered by the same dealer last year filling out the collection to date.

I have tried to select and arrange a few of these leaves in interesting ways on the tables set up here for you to view later. It includes a little narrative. And it is but one of many potential arrangements, depending upon the particular focus.

My interest is a natural one. Mine is a bookish family and my first job at 16 was at a weekly newspaper. There I first smelled hot lead and printer’s ink. I did graduate work in Journalism at the University of Missouri then worked for United Press International in Kansas City before moving on to Washington, where I snagged a job with Time Magazine and eventually ended up covering Lyndon Johnson’s White House, later the Supreme Court and Justice Department and eventually reported from Los Angeles and Vietnam. That was only a little over 35 years ago, barely a moment ago in the deep history of cultural change.

My White House experience began during a cold winter. The big round Taft cabinet room table in the middle of the west wing pressroom was usually piled high with damp coats. Reporters lolled in overstuffed leather chairs that rimmed the room. Twice daily 15 or 20 of us would file into Press Secretary Bill Moyer’s small office. There were only two 12–hour news cycles then. Reporters from the two wire services, NY Times and Herald Tribune, Washington Post and Star, Baltimore Sun, the two weekly newsmagazines, a few syndicates, the Chicago papers, the Los Angeles Times and the Copley News Service. That usually was it. Moyers would stand behind his desk with a lit cigar, a politically incorrect prop today. Puffing a cigar allowed him think before he answered a question. He would start with his announcements, the President’s meeting schedule, perhaps introduce someone representing an administration program and field questions.

Now in the reporting trade – and a trade it is - one learns to think negatively. What don’t you see, what is not being said, who is missing. Or as a friend once said – “What you see ain’t what’s happening.” Missing then in terms of today’s White House – besides the hundreds of additional reporters - was anything electronic. Only reporters with notepads and pens. No tape recorders, no cameras, no microphones – all requirements for today’s 24/7 world.

By contrast, today, if you use Google for the top news stories on your PC, it is updated every minute from 4,000 sources which are displayed and available just a click away. If you did a Google search on “Islam and Modernity” as I did on January 2, you would have waited 0.14 seconds to be notified of 47,000 hits. In the networked world of 2010, the contents of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which will include audio-visual elements, will take 1 second to download.

Last year I retired from a company that set up the China-based manufacture of flat panel display panels or screens – the information display surface of an electronic age that competes with paper. We all know that the Chinese invented paper along with moveable type, gunpowder and the compass, but never capitalized upon them. Currently the manufacturing cost of a flat panel screen is about 50% of the total manufacturing cost of a laptop computer, which is about the percentage of the cost of paper for a 15th century book. In the years ahead these cost will plunge just as they did for paper. I don’t know how exactly, but I have no doubt that they will.

There are several reasons for China’s failure to capitalize on moveable type, not the least of which are the difficulties of applying Chinese ideographic script – a minimum of 1500 characters and maximum of 4-5,000 to type and printing. Compared to 26 upper and lower case alphabet letters, the capital investment commitment for Chinese script were imperial in scale. Today, binary codes have solved this problem.

The Chinese and Islamic civilizations had long been dominant at the start of Europe’s print culture and the fall of Constantinople in the 15th Century. Had there been a 15th Century equivalent of a Las Vegas odds maker or layoff betting artist, he would have been called a reckoning master and would have rated Europe’s potential of being the dominant culture 500 years later at precisely zero. That is what Einstein called the European miracle.

In my Internet wanderings, James Dewar’s Rand paper led me to Elizabeth Eisenstein. Nearly 40 years ago, provoked by Marshal McLuhan’s book – The Gutenberg Galaxy; The Making of Typographical Man – Ms. Eisenstein took Francis Bacon’s statement seriously:

“We should note,” wrote Bacon, “the force, effect, and consequences of inventions which are nowhere more conspicuous than in those three which were unknown to the ancients, namely, printing, gunpowder, and the compass. For these three have changed the appearance and state of the whole world.”

Fourteen years later in 1979 her two volume book – “The Printing Press as an Agent of Change” – was published and caused a great stir in bibliographic circles because she treated the subject as history, not bibliography, and phenomenologically, a sort of phase change in slow motion.

For example, where scholars had long recognized the contributing role of the press in spreading Protestant doctrine, of giving it an assist, Eisenstein argues convincingly that printing was the enabling technology of the Reformation, that without it the Protestant reformation would not have occurred.

Where scholars had recognized the role of print in the rebirth of humanism of the classical Greeks, Eisenstein argued that the Italian renaissance differed little from earlier ones in the 9th and 12th centuries until the printing press added what she called “typographical fixity”. She shows that the printing press changed the conditions under which information was collected, stored, retrieved, criticized, discovered and promoted.

Putting those same ideas into hundreds of identical printed copies helped them to cross the Alps and spread into northern Europe. Furthermore, she shows that without the sudden emergence of the printing press the fall of Constantinople in 1453 - with its huge storehouse of classical Greek and Latin texts - would have been disastrous for humanism. The flight of Greek scholars to Venice, Bologna, Rome and Florence joined with the new print medium to fix and stabilize knowledge of the Greek and Roman classics. And there is irony in the fact that we must thank the Islamic scholars of the 6th and 7th century for the existence and preservation of these texts.

And Eisenstein argues that print culture – because it allowed for the cumulative advance of knowledge and views the past from a fixed distance – constituted a change in attitude that questions the past. Cumulative and progressive knowledge was absolutely revolutionary. Scientific data collection was born with printing. Copernicus compared the printed ideas and data of Ptolemy, Aristotle and others, noted their errors and inconsistencies and published “De Revolutionibus” in 1543 beginning the Scientific Revolution.

Now Eisenstein did not happen upon a new idea here. Leonard Shlain notes in his book that Will and Ariel Durant, in their Story of Civilization series, had made many of the same observations. But timing can be everything. And my guess is that Eisenstein’s voluminous study arrived at just the right moment.

In the first 50 years of print technology, presses were established in no fewer than 236 and possibly up to 300 urban towns and cities of Europe. And though the number of volumes produced is in dispute, most authorities estimate that some 15-20 million volumes in 35,000 editions ranging between 200 and 1,000 pages had been produced in a region with a population of around 100 million, of which only a tiny percentage, less than 10 percent were literate. The Catholic church embraced the technology at first as a high tech means of disseminating hagiographies – the lives of the saints – and biblical teachings as well as a super new way of selling bushels of indulgences, in part to fund a crusade to take Constantinople back from the Ottoman Turk. It was the profitability of printing indulgences which inspired Gutenberg to some degree before he printed the first bible, arguably one of the most beautiful books ever produced, and then went broke. The Church embraced the technology, that is, until Martin Luther’s print driven heresy put an end to Rome’s enthusiasm.

If the Rhine River Valley was the Silicon Valley of this 15th Century communication technology, Italy and particularly Venice was the Manhattan of publishing. These German printers carried their technology under their hat, much as Silicon Valley technologists would switch companies overnight during the go-go years. Print technology shifted to Italy before fanning out across Europe rapidly so that between 1491 and 1497, of the 1821 editions that have been identified, 447 or nearly a quarter were produced in Venice, where large printing firms were numerous. Venice dominated the trade routes of the eastern Mediterranean and its network of trade relationship and distribution channels dominated Europe in the 15th century and would continue to do so until late in the 16th century, when the rise of Atlantic based trade shifted the dominant commercial center to Antwerp, then Amsterdam, then London and eventually to the island of Manhattan.

This was the age of the great Venetian publishers including Jensen and most astonishing of all – the presses of the Aldus family which produced Aldine editions. And if the Venetians led the publishing fever, Paris and Lyons in France were close behind. Paris had an immense number of printers, publishers and booksellers. The known editions numbered 181. And what was prescribed as religiously incorrect in Paris could always be printed in Lyons, which accounted for 91 known editions, or if proscribed in Lyon, could be shifted to Geneva, which became a center of Protestant printing.

One result was what we would today call information overload.

Meet Agostino Ramelli, an Italian engineer who designed military hardware for Henry III of France and participated in the 15-month siege of the Protestant Huguenot stronghold of La Rochelle in 1572 where a number of the inhabitants starved to death before it capitulated. Henry III, who tried to moderate the religious conflict, was later assassinated by a Catholic priest wielding a knife.

Ramelli’s response to information overload was to invent his book wheel which he described in a book published in Paris in 1588. He claimed it was “very useful . . . for those indisposed by gout . . . For with this machine a man can see and turn through a large number of books without moving from one spot.” Securely fixed books, he wrote, “will not fall, nor will they move from the place where they are put: in fact they will remain always in the same state, and they will represent themselves always before the reader in the same manner in which they have been placed.” Now that could be a crude description of hypertext.

Dewar’s central point is that print technology and subsequent communication technologies - radio, television and film – share one major similarity. They are enabling technologies that amplify communication in a way that allows the one to communicate with the many, a definition of mass communication. Networked computers, digital and Internet communication – by contrast – are very significantly different in that it enables communication between the many and the many. This is a difference in kind, not just degree. This distinction is crucial to Dewar’s analysis.

Consider the troubles of Cardinal Law of Boston and the Catholic Church. The National Catholic Reporter first sounded an alarm about priest molestation in 1985. Seventeen years later it became a hot story. Why? A USC Annenberg Journalism Review article says that not only did e-mail accelerate the speed with which the Boston Globe could pursue the story, the “Internet has fundamentally altered the balance that governed the relationship between media institutions and more traditional powers such as the Church.” And if you go to the Annenberg site, you will be provided with helpful links such as a clergy abuse tracker, the entire Boston Globe archive, a survivor home page and dozens of others links all in one convenient package.

Or consider this: Could Osama bin Laden and Al Queda have organized 9/11 without the Internet, e-mail and web pages? I think not.

And finally there is Walter Ong, a Jesuit scholar at the University of St. Louis. Now I consider myself a relatively well-informed citizen. And yet I had never heard of Walter Ong until three months ago. Perhaps some of you have. I subsequently learned that he has addressed the Phi Beta Kappa Society over 50 times, mostly in the Midwest I think. My ignorance did not cause me too much concern however.

But Ong’s name kept popping up in my nonlinear Internet wanderings. Finally, a networked media group I joined informed me that a collection of his writings had just been published and despite its expense - $100 – I ordered it.

When the book arrived and I turned to the introduction written by Lance Strate of Fordham University, where he enumerates Walter Jackson Ong’s accomplishments as a consummate scholar – a scholar’s scholar – and a contemporary and colleague of Marshall McLuhan. From the beginning, when Ong submitted the longest PhD dissertation in the history of Harvard University – 1700 pages - he has continued to earn high academic credentials. That dissertation on the 16th century scholastic, Peter Ramus, was published as Ramus, Method and the Decay of Dialogue and earned Ong a knighthood conferred by the French Government.

Dr. Strate, who edits the Journal of the Media Ecology Association , provides an inventory of diverse fields and disciplines to which Dr. Ong has contributed. It includes rhetoric, communication, education, media studies, English, literary criticism, classics, biblical studies, theology, philosophy, psychology, anthropology, cultural studies, history, medieval studies, Renaissance studies, American studies, gender studies, biology and computer science. No specialized niches for Ong. But then Dr. Strate makes this statement:

Ong “is arguably one of the most significant intellectuals of the twentieth century.” I had to reread that sentence several times - “one of the most significant intellectuals of the 20th Century”?? Then why had I never heard of him? “No doubt,” Dr. Strate continues, “it will take a twenty-first century mind, a mind born and educated in this new century, to appreciate in full his scholarly accomplishments.”

So here I am only left a kind of Pilgrim come upon a new and unknown city. That I had never heard of this man might be forgiven. That I had never heard of the man who might be one of the most significant thinkers in the 20th Century left me a little breathless. But Professor Strate provides my excuse. I am not a 21st Century mind. Oh well. To some not all is given. On the other hand, Dr. Strate seems to insist that if one is seriously interested in Ong’s work, they should begin with Peter Ramus, all 1700 pages.

And so to repeat in closing on subjects so vast and sweeping – on changes in communication so potentially profound – changes that drive us back to thinking or rethinking the past 500 years of cultural change, I would like to discover a general public context and use for this collection of printed leaves. Doing so might leave others as breathless as myself.

And finally, one last thought. In the 1960s I thought Marshall McLuhan’s writing was a little off the wall and confusing. I of course knew of the most common concept: “The medium is the message.” Less well known is the rest of McLuhan’s statement. “The medium is the message – and the user is the content.”

This user thanks you for listening and is open to any suggestions that you may have.