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The next Gutenberg moment is now

Johannes Gutemberg and his printing pressThis article shall be considered as my week ramblings, nothing more.

Some time ago, I stumbled upon the term “Gutenberg moment” (and I’m very sorry because I don’t remember where). I googled it quickly and here’s a definition I found:

A Gutenberg moment is one which changes the way we produce and consume text as dramatically as Gutenberg’s machine did.
Dennis Baron

Reading this definition triggered this article: I already wrote about knowledge value and cost and this is somewhat related, but it brings an historical light to it (real historians will pardon my many mistakes: corrections welcome).

Anyway, what is so important in the invention of the printing press? In order to understand that, we have to forget how easy it is to buy a book and remember how things were before.

In these times known as the Dark Ages, books were written manually by so-called copyist monks who were dedicated to this task. In a era where reading and writing were uncommon, only a small subset of the educated provided books… which of course, kept the number of pieces produced extremely low.

The good part of the manual copying is that each book was unique, somewhat akin to a mastercraft; the bad part is that the manual copying process introduced many divergences or even errors in the copied books.

I don’t even mention the fact that since monks were responsible for producing books, they probably put a higher priority on sacred books and less on profane ones.

In the end, there would be a couple of issues regarding you getting your hands on a specific book: basically, it boils down to you going to the book or the book (or a copy) coming to you. In all cases, you’d have needed to be very rich to afford that.

Gutenberg’s printing press “just” enabled mass production of books; this lead to huge decrease in book prices. In turn, this had important consequences:

Availability
Whereas formerly, one would first have to know the location of a particular book, printing press just shrinked down the problem to knowing about the book itself. From this point on, one could just go to the library or order the book.
Reproducibility
A mechanical process didn’t completely erased errors – in fact, an error on the master led to so many erroneous copies, but it made possible incremental and iterative improvements. Errors could be reported and then corrected on the master, improving future printings.
Diversity
Removing books creation from the hands of a selected few to put it in a larger circle enable to get books that were not only out of the religious scope, but even sometimes contrary to the then-predominant catholic doxa. Knowledge restricted to oral passing could be finally written.
Communication enablement
Last but certainly not least, mass-production of books made possible network communication of ideas. Formerly, you could perhaps write a book to spread your ideas, but until it became well-known, centuries would have passed. With printing press, you could communicate to entire Europe in your lifetime; and even be contradicted by other books and have a chance to read them!

Those effects took decades or centuries to manifest, but they were powerful enough. And they were just the result from manual production to mass production, not only of books but of content, of knowledge.

Of course, the way books are pressed has improved drastically since Gutenberg’s time. It has become an industrial process instead of a craftmanship: easier, faster and thus cheaper… but the fundamental alchemy is the same since centuries.

Now, it is my opinion we are blessed because we are experiencing another Gutenberg moment, and those effects are already apparent. I’m referring to the digitalization of books, from material to intangible. And consequences of the former Gutenberg revolution are multiplied a thousandfold:

  1. Places were books are not available, cannot be kept (because of environment or policies) can access content nonetheless. In Africa, mobile has done more for women education than years of NGO efforts ever could.
  2. You don’t need to wait to get errata: content is changed online so each connection may bring a new (and hopefully better) version.
  3. Anyone (even me) can write his/her own book(s), spread his/her ideas, and so on. Granted, for some ideas, this is definitely not cool but let the majority be the judge of that. Rare books or out-of-print books can find a new eternal life online, cared for by specialists and experts.
  4. Communication is even faster than before: you can publish as soon as you’ve typed (as I do on this blog). There’s no need for a lengthy physical process. Writing means publishing!

Consider this is only infrastructure. Things will be as we mold them, for better or worst.

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