Gutenberg and Change

Johannes Gutenberg gets credit for the invention of the movable type printing press in the mid-fifteenth century. His printing methods sparked changes throughout society. Gutenberg gets credit, for example, for making the Reformation possible. 

At the time, the Church sold indulgences. It claimed the purchase of an indulgence granted full or partial remission of the punishment for sin. John Tetzel sold a lot of indulgences with the slogan, “when the coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.” 

In the early stages of every significant technological revolution, we use the new technology to do more of what we've been doing. The first major use of movable type was to print indulgences in great quantity.  That made it possible for the church to make more money from selling them, but it also stoked the ire of reformers like Jan Hus and Martin Luther. 

Many other changes sprang from Gutenberg’s invention. Consider a few of them.

Before Gutenberg books were copied by hand. The word "manuscript" is from the Latin for "written by hand." The books were full of unique errors and editorial changes. Every book was unique. After Gutenberg, the text stabilized for most books. 

Before Gutenberg books were usually read out loud. Today most of us read silently. The first books did not have page numbers, tables of contents, or indices. 

The new way to print books didn't just affect the printing of books. Soon there was a whole supply chain dedicated to creating, producing, distributing, and selling books. Bookshops opened. Newspapers began publishing. 

There were naysayers, of course, people who treasured the old ways. They claimed that reading wasn’t for everyone and that books would make people lazy and unable to think for themselves. The benefits of printing were not so obvious at first.

Printing made it possible to extend discourse beyond the town where you happened to live. Books carried the ideas of philosophers and scientists and artists from mind to mind. Books inspired a lonely boy in rural Gaylord, Michigan named Claude Shannon. He became an inventor of information theory.  Books enabled young William Kamkwamba to learn how to build the windmill that brought power to his family and to his village in Malawi.

Book affected the world in other ways. Among the first books to be mass-produced were bibles. Not just bibles, but bibles written in the vernacular, the language people spoke every day. They didn’t need to have the bible read to them by a priest or scholar who knew Latin. The Reformation was enabled by bibles printed in the people’s language. 

That was just the beginning. Printing made social reform possible. It’s hard to imagine the American Revolution, for example, without the newspapers, pamphlets, and books that spread important ideas. 

Now we have the web. Suddenly there’s more information at our fingertips than most of us can process effectively. We can send an idea around the world in fractions of a second. 

Gutenberg’s press opened new vistas of possibility. Those vistas were so vast and so new that they quickly outran any predictions. The web is doing the same thing.

Claude Shannon and Marc Andreesen began their life journeys in small rural locations. Andreesen thinks the availability of information over the web will allow more boys and girls from similar places to make a journey like his own. 

I'm sure he's right about that. Every innovation makes many others possible. Outside events, like the Coronavirus, force us to make other changes.

I wonder what else will change in the next century or two.

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