The very permanence of preserved discourse allows an argument or community to build knowledge over time. Science would be impossible without preserved speech. Each generation can build on the discoveries of the last. This is also true in theology and art. Old heresies need not be fought in every generation if one attends to the old, preserved arguments. Beauty from one generation can grace the lives of succeeding generations.

Preservation allows original arguments to be extended. There is no need to begin each conversation at the very beginning, though one can if it is helpful. Preservation allows the teacher or student to begin where he or she wishes to begin.

The ability to preserve ideas and art allows a community to create amazing works that are greater (potentially) than the sum of their parts. A film is not just one preserved act of creation but the accumulated contributions of many people. Any Hollywood movie must accumulate small preserved actions in order to create the greater whole. A newspaper is another example of preserved work composed of many smaller parts. The whole paper can be greater than the sum of its parts.

In fact, in the light of these terrific benefits, it is easy to forget the limitations of reserved media. Preserved discourse tempts humankind to avoid community and become isolated from other living humans. The pasty pale academic with no social skills is an obvious example of this problem. Many of my students shun concerts and live in a world defined by the space between their iPod ear buds.

The Printing Press Tipped the Scale:  The Implications of the Triumph of Preserved Media

For most of Western history, there was a place for both preserved and live encounters with ideas. Most music was heard live, and a lecture was a cheaper way to mass distribute ideas than costly hand-copied books. Isolation necessitated cultural ignorance.

Gutenberg changed all of that. The ability to produce books cheaply tipped the scale in favor of preserved media. Each technological advance, up to the creation of the personal computer, seemed to exacerbate this imbalance.

While the “new” technology allowed for cheaper end products (books and eventually records), producing and especially distributing them were still fairly expensive. Production and distribution came to be concentrated in the hands of a relatively small number of people. Access to certain ideas was much easier (a good thing), but the decision of which ideas or works of art would be preserved or distributed was in the hands of a few.

When books were hand-copied, anybody could produce a book if they had the time. There were fewer books, but there was bias toward copying only the best works. The slow distribution of books allowed for regional cultures to survive and even thrive. Folk ideas could survive in such a society. A local monastery with one copy of a regional book was not flooded by “imported” books.

When books were reproduced on expensive printing presses, there was a tendency toward uniformity. People could own more books, but they tended to be the same books as everyone else in their language group. Ancient libraries would often contain eccentric tomes (even the sole copies of an entire work), but the modern educated person’s collection soon became much like his neighbor’s.

There was a slow rise in power of the national over the local. This had many positive benefits, as anyone who has ever grown up in an inbred community knows, but something was lost as well. The regional or local can often serve as a breeding ground for new ideas. It can also serve as a conservative redoubt against a national madness such as fascism. Only a Germany where strong regional and local ties had been severely compromised could fall prey to a lunatic idea such as National Socialism.

In Christendom the authority of the university or seminary became dominant over the experiences of the local teacher or parish priest. The Grimm brothers gathered folk tales and preserved them for the future, but the very publication of their work tended to standardize the tales. In the age of Disney, there is no use asking what the children’s tales of West Virginia are because they are the same as those of Los Angeles or New York City.