How the medium shapes the message: Printing and the rise of the arts and sciences

C. Jara-Figueroa, Amy Z. Yu, César A. Hidalgo:

Communication technologies, from printing to social media, affect our historical records by changing the way ideas are spread and recorded. Yet, finding statistical evidence of this fact has been challenging. Here we combine a common causal inference technique (instrumental variable estimation) with a dataset on nearly forty thousand biographies from Wikipedia (Pantheon 2.0), to study the effect of the introduction of printing in European cities on Wikipedia’s digital biographical records. By using a city’s distance to Mainz as an instrument for the adoption of the movable type press, we show that European cities that adopted printing earlier were more likely to become the birthplace of a famous scientist or artist during the years following the invention of printing. We bring these findings to recent communication technologies by showing that the number of radios and televisions in a country correlates with the number of globally famous performing artists and sports players born in that country, even after controlling for GDP, population, and including country and year fixed effects. These findings support the hypothesis that the introduction of communication technologies can bias historical records in the direction of the content that is best suited for each technology.