Writing provided the first means for individuals to record significant amounts of knowledge external to memory to begin populating Popper's World 3. Printing provided the means to preserve and widely replicate written knowledge to ensure it against easy loss. Robertson (1998) estimates that people with access to libraries of printed books have available 6 orders of magnitude more World 3 knowledge to fuel their cognition than would have been available before books began to be printed and collected into libraries.
Eisenstein (1979, 1983) analyzed the role of printed books63 in the three major European cultural revolutions in the 15th, 16th and 17th Centuries – the Renaissance, Reformation and the Scientific Revolution - which laid the groundwork for the Industrial Revolution. Some revolutions, e.g., the Renaissance, were already underway before the invention of the printing press. However, the combination of moveable type with the wine press enabled development of an industrial process that broadcast the results of these and more recent revolutions (e.g., the Reformation) as they occurred (Levinson, 1997). Eisenstein makes the point that the ability to print and circulate hundreds or thousands of identical copies of the same documents widely across Europe and beyond had a slow but profound influence on who became literate, the nature of literacy and the kinds of things that literate people could do. In other words, the availability of printed books caused or enabled a major revolution in human cognition in around 10 generations - much too fast for any extensive change in hereditary knowledge encoded in human DNA.
We, who today have virtually free and unfettered access to the entire repository of human knowledge at our fingertips through the Web search engines and major research libraries, can only try to comprehend what it was like to be a "knowledge worker" in the verbal/scribal culture preceding the invention of printing. When knowledge was primarily preserved and transmitted through documents transcribed by hand, the critical difficulty was to maintain the accuracy of recorded knowledge or even to preserve it at all (Eisenstein 1983, Griscom 1998). Because both creating the recording medium (papyrus or velum) and the copying process were so labor intensive, previously documented (i.e., transcribed) knowledge was always at considerable risk of corruption and extinction. Because creating the copy was almost as labor intensive as creating the original, much recorded knowledge may have only ever existed in the one recording. Loss only required a failure to manually transcribe the only or last remaining copy before it was lost to the vicissitudes of simple wear and tear, disposal, fire, flooding, or loss in the chaos of war – as happened with the priceless knowledge collected in the great library of Alexandria, etc.).
The first lengthy documents were written on parchment scrolls. With scrolls one had to access content by scanning linearly through the document. The development and use of the codex early in the Christian era was a major improvement over the scroll as a means of recording knowledge because it allowed any part of the content to be readily accessed by opening the pages at the desired point64. However, before printing made it economically feasible for single scholars to own books, codices were designed and illuminated as elaborate aids to memory65, not to preserve knowledge or to help scholars find new knowledge. Books were so rare that they certainly were not written and designed to be consulted along with hundreds of others to locate particular kinds of information.66
Scribal scholars may have had access to assorted records written by others, but these would often be held in repositories separated by days or weeks of travel time (when travel was by foot, ox cart or horse), where the owners of the documents might or might not allow an itinerant scholar to even see them. Once a document was found, the only way a scholar could record the content for later use was to copy it by hand. Beyond that, scribes and scholars lacked uniform chronologies, maps or any of the other kinds of reference material commonly used to classify and organize knowledge. "Each scribal text was uniquely flawed – or, arguably, uniquely correct with regard to subjective understanding" (Griscom 1998).
Because the first printing processes were labor intensive and thus still very expensive by today's concepts, large organizations such as the churches and states were the primary customers for printed products. However, to facilitate marketing their books, the early presses developed a number of improvements that turned illuminated codices into modern reference books which could be mass produced and marketed (at least by Renaissance standards):
woodcuts for illustration,
title pages and prefaces (Shevlin 1999),
metal engraving for detailed charts and diagrams,
tables of contents.
This made the printed books67 far easier to use by scholars as sources of preserved knowledge. Where the growth of knowledge is concerned, the primary effect of the presses in the first century of printing was to preserve, codify, consolidate, disseminate and enable criticism of the existing classical knowledge. Only when copies of multiple works on the same subjects were readily available to cognoscenti without the immense travel time and labor costs to copy ancient authorities by hand that were rare, priceless and closely guarded, did printing begin to have a major impact on the growth of new knowledge (Eisenstein 1983; Hobart and Schiffman 1998; Berner 1987).
Within the framework of evolutionary epistemology and the cybernetics of power, multiplying and disseminating the sources of ancient knowledge through printing was the crucial enabler that allowed scholars to criticize and reevaluate knowledge via an OODA loop process (Figure). Kircz's (1997) paper summarizes Eisenstein's assessment of these impacts of printing on the origins of modern scientific endeavor. It took nearly 200 years to reach the critical point where the cycles of interaction between the three worlds of dissemination (World 2 to World 3), criticism (World 3 to World 2), testing (World 3 to World 1) and reformulation (World 2 to World 3) enabled the beginnings of exponential growth of knowledge. Once begun, the process has been inexorable.
Printing, as the first industrial mass production process, had a huge impact on the evolution of knowledge and initiated huge changes of the roles of humanity in nature. The rapid replication and wide dissemination of knowledge allowed many repetitions and cycles of evaluation, testing and reformulation of aggregated knowledge within the average lifespan of an individual human. Thus, over the next five centuries, printing enabled the huge evolutionary grade shift from Homo agriculturis to Homo industrialis.
The ability to rapidly assemble, codify and disseminate knowledge to discrete groups of individuals enabled the development of new kinds of state, religious and commercial organizations defined and coordinated by their shared knowledge base or intellectual capital.