Last Friday, we had our annual outing with the lab. Since we study applications of semantic technologies, a visit to the Museum Plantin-Moretus in Antwerpen seemed very appropriate. This world-renowned museum has been appointed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a stunning 16th century Renaissance and Baroque printing plant and publishing site.
This was already my third visit to the museum. It was one of the earliest leading publishing houses in Europe, and as such has been instrumental in enabling the spread of humanistic thought. It thus really is one of the cradles of our modern, liberal Western society.
One of the charms of the museum is that it does not attract huge crowds and has not been Disneyfied. You walk around the dark, mysterious rooms, often alone, and feel yourself slipping into a "Name of the Rose" like world, as if the printers have just left the room for a break. For book lovers like me, browsing the walls full of centuries-old, priceless books and globes is a rare treat. It even contains the two oldest printing presses in the world, so History is Present!
One thing that particularly struck me is how community technologies with great impact, of which book printing no doubt is one of the greatest, only can get their impact while strongly embedded and evolving in a nourishing community of practice. We often think of "Humanism" and "Renaissance" as abstract, larger-than-life ideas, which somehow emerged autonomously or "because the time was ripe". A visit to this museum makes very clear, however, how much depends on people and politics for these ideas (not) to flourish.
Plantin first of all was a business-man. Antwerpen in those days was under Spanish, ultra-orthodox Catholic rule. He was forced to print, for political and financial reasons, a large amount of religious publications, including even a bible in 5 languages, his masterpiece. However, and here is where it gets fascinating, Plantin was also very interested in the nascent humanistic ideas. He even funded long-term research visits by the top post-Erasmus scholars of the day. Countless travellers and visitors from all over Europe managed to find their way over the years.
Imagine, one room housed the catholic censor, who had to reject everything that did not follow Party, pardon me, Church lines. In the next room, a Great Mind was Shifting Paradigms! What an exciting time it must have been: printing technologies rapidly maturing from nothing to mass production, the greatest religious and intellectual forces of the era whirling around that emerging hub in the world of Early Modernity, political and religious authorities that tried to get a grip on this, powerful merchants and citizens with all their insatiable demands for perfection and new science and philosophy.
Incredible tensions and conflicts must have arisen. Picture the subtle discussions, sensemaking, negotiation, and plain scheming that had to be done to keep all these contradictions from exploding! If ever there was a community of practice that has influenced the world, this is the one. Perhaps there are some essential lessons to be learnt here, by a world that in many respects sadly seems to be reverting to some culturally Dark Ages. At least there is a lesson of hope: against all odds, Plantin and his team managed to beat The System. The Community Informatics community should heed this call...