Examplary essays from the midterm

"The invention of the Greek alphabet, as opposed to all previous systems, including the Phoenician, constituted an event in the history of human culture, the importance of which has not as yet been fully grasped. Its appearance divides all pre-Greek civilizations from those that are post-Greek." Eric Havelock, "The Preliteracy of the Greeks."   What are some of the cultural developments that Havelock ascribes to   the introduction of the alphabet in Greece?  Are there any advantages  to logographic writing systems that Havelock ignores? Give some  examples.

For Eric Havelock, the invention of the Greek alphabet in 750 BC is the ultimate doorway between two ages of civilization - the pre-alphabetic and the post-alphabetic.  Havelock credits this first "true" alphabet with symbols for both consonants and vowels as the catalyst for new forms of human thought and expression.  The alphabet was easy to learn and contributed to widespread literacy.  Abstract thoughts began to be recognizable and recordable.  Stories and histories no longer needed to be rhythmical and mythical, because memorization was no longer a requirement.  People were free to construct new forms of poetry, histories, and letters.  The written word itself could be critiqued and analyzed, allowing for the discovery of structures and truth, such as grammar.  But while Havelock proclaimed these virtues of the alphabet, he ignored a few significant advantages of the logographic system.  The logograph is free of a spoken language, while an alphabet is dependent on it.  People speaking many different dialects can understand a single logographic writing system, as in China.  In addition, the logographic system is often better defined.  There is less confusion over words that are spelled or "look" the same. - Elaine

Elizabeth Eisenstein argues that the printing press was an important "agent of change."  Outline some of the areas which it affected and show how it worked.  Discuss how we may or may not assess the extent to which the changes that followed print were the result of the technology.

Elizabeth Eisenstein argues that the printing press was an important agent of change and proposes several different effects on certain areas of society. Among those affected areas she includes: standardization of text and language, less corrupted Christian knowledge, more access to more literature and general information explosion leading to revolutions like the enlightenment and the scientific revolution.
    She attributes 'print' with improved standardization because of things like page numbers and textual format.  She said Christian knowledge became less corrupt because of the fact that the bible was being printed in different languages, allowing a wider audience to be able to actually read the Bible, which in affect took away the latin-based institutions of the church to corrupt the holy text.  The access to more literature can be linked to the fact that more copies of texts could be produced more quickly allowing more books to circulate.  Finally, her idea of an information explosion based on the printing press is based on the rise of new science and philosophy in the years following the printing press.
    Her arguments sound relatively legitimate until one begins to attempt to assess her claims.  In order to assess these claims it is good to check the printing press's relation to other historical events bey examining what came before and after, which exactly happens and who was involved, and was the technology necessary and/or sufficient for the claimed effects it had.  Firstly the issue of standardization is refuted by the fact that scribes had been putting page numbers on written texts for centuries prior to the press and also that most early printed works had either no page numbers or erroneous numbers.
    Assessing the claim that printing helped remove corruption from Christianity, we can simply look a the first thing printed: and indulgence, the epitome of Christian corruption by the church.  Also it is rumored that the first bible printed was a somewhat pirated version of early German translation.  Next, regarding the claim of a resultant "information explosion" leading to scientific and social revolution is not consistent with history.  This is because most of the key players in the advent of the scientific revolution were born and lived a hundred or more years after the press was created.
    Beyond assessing her claims based on history of what happened before and after the events in Europe we can look across the globe to Asia who had printing for years before it appeared in Germany.  And even with the press, these cultures did not result in many of the effects Eisenstein directly associates with the press.  This shows although the press may be necessary for certain social progression to occur, it is actually not sufficient as the example of the Asian societies shows. - Nicholaus

Why was it so hard to predict the spring equinox accurately?  Why did it matter? Who was involved in establishing the new calendar to set the equinox, and what kinds of  political and social resistance did it meet with and why?

The equinox was so hard to predicts because the length of the year kept fluctuating and was often very inaccurate.  For example, in 46 BCE the year was was 445 days long while then in 45 BCE the year was 365.25 days long.  The prediction of the spring equinox was very important for two reasons: 1) for religious reasons, since Easter was the first full moon after the spring equinox and 2) for agricultural reasons.  The spring equinox and the day for best season in which to plant crops that won't die in the winter.  It was vital to keep track of such a day if crops were to grow successfully.  in the 14th century Luigi Lilio created the "leap year" solution where every four year an extra day would be added to the month of February to make up for 6 hours a 365 day calendar falls short every year of an actual solar year.  In 1582, Pope Gregory XII adopted this solution as he recalibrated the calendar in a formal decree.  In England the calendar was recalibrated such that after October 4th would be October 15th instead of the 5th.  This was met with much resistance for those Christians who believed death was predetermined, and therefor were being cut short of precious time they had to live (i.e. "give us back our 11 days").  It was well over a century before Protestants adopted the system, since they wanted to remain distinct from the Catholics.  And it would be much longer before the Orthodox Christians followed the Gregorian calendar as well.  As a result, many documents had more than one date. - Andrea

Many, if not most, of the cultural phenomena of the modern world derive from [the 18th century] -- the periodical, the newspaper, the novel, the journalist, the critic, the public library, the concert, the public museum. Perhaps most important of all, it was then that 'public opinion' came to be recognized as the ultimate arbiter in matters of taste and politics."--Tim Blanning, The Culture of Power. "  Take an example of one 18th-century phenomenon, either from Blanning's list or from the topics discussed in class, and discuss its  significance in the history of information.

The 18th century phenomenon of the public museum is important in the history of information because it - and it's development - represent the development of modern categorization of things from species to paintings.
    Much like with the change from manuscript culture to print culture, the shift from Kunstkammer culture to museum culture demonstrated the power of cross-pollination and quantity of sources to push for few patterns of organization.  The example of the pre-museum studiolo is fitting.  Painting collectors would arrange their paintings by thematic or chromatic elements and literally fill their wall with paintings.  When these collections grew into museums like the Belvedere Palace in Vienna they became organized as we have them today - by time, genre, etc.  The mass accumulation of things that public museums embody allowed for this.
    In the world of biology, Linneaus' now standard phylum classification of animals would not have happened - or worked - without these large collections of stuff.
    The "public" element of the museum's is important as well.  The idea that anyone can go see these museum collections gives rise to the idea of public "information" - that information is a shared publicly beneficial thing for everyone. - William B.

The dictionary was extremely significant in the history of information and served several important functions.  It acted symbolically, in response to anxiety aobut the shifting nature of the vernacular and criticisms about the mundane nature of everyday language to determine which words were appropriate for public discourse.  In addition, the advent of the dictionary allowe people to understand how words were used in print and have a discussion about how language was used without needing to know the exact context where an utterance occurred.  Dictionaries served on important social function, by signifying the type of language appropriate for conversation.  For example, Webster's new dictionary can be understood as a reflection of a desire to show the difference between the American society and Britain, reflecting this difference in new spellings and by the type of words included.  The dictionary was connected to the rise of print and the use of words in the public sphere, with Samuel Johnson illustrating his definitions by quotations from various authors where they used the word defined.  In addition, the rise of the dictionary was connected with shifting conceptions of knowledge, which was originally organized thematically in a scheme organizing the entire universe, but shifted to alphabetic organization which made access easier and was less philosophically ambiguous.  Most importantly, the dictionary was essential for the new types of discussions taking place in the public sphere, helping people evaluate use of language and hold others to what they said. -Jessica M.

The newspaper was an 18th century cultural phenomena that expanded people's sense of how far their communities extended.  In the United States, the early government recognized the importance of the newspaper in allowing a republic to survive with a widely dispersed population.  This can be seen in the fact that in the 19th c. the postal service was created to guarantee artificially cheap delivery of newspapers, made possible by charging high rates for delivery of letters.  The newspaper allowed Americans to pursue the Agrarian vision of land ownership while still remaining involved in and informed about public matters.  
    We also see examples of less high-minded flow of information through newspapers.  In the discussion of the telegraph, despite predictions of a new era of international exchange of knowledge and good will, we saw that much of the news stories published from abroad involved trivia such as the birth of a new royal child.  This does not diminish the importance of how the newspaper altered perception of information. We can imagine how the ability to receive informaiton of marginal importance from distant regions would broaden peoples' notions of the extent of their communities.  That is, the world would seem a little smaller the barrier to transmission of information is significantly lowered.  Also, people would be more likely to gather in public places to discuss the news, so newspapers contributed to the emergence of the public sphere due to the high availability of news. -Ned