A letter to 2040

Zeit Online is having some of us write letters to a child just born, to be read in the year 2040. After reviewing David Weinberger’s Too Big to Know, they asked me to write about wisdom. I wrote about media. It being a letter to a German child, I of course wrote about Gutenberg, too. Here’s the German translation. Here’s the English text:

I’ll bet that 2040 will prove to be a pivotal year in the future of knowledge. But you’ll have to collect on that bet for me.

It so happens that 2040 is the year when—according to projections of the downward trajectory of the American news industry—it is believed that the last newspaper could come off the last press.

Yes, the last press. Already, what we call printers do more than press ink on paper. They use jets to precisely place matter on matter, producing not just text but also manufactured parts, chocolate, even concrete buildings and perhaps soon human organs.

2040 also comes about 50 years after Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the World Wide Web. That is an important milestone. Elizabeth Eisenstein, the leading scholar on Gutenberg, said it took 50 years for the book to leave behind its scribal roots–it was first considered just “automated writing”–and take on its form. As I write this, the products of the press—books, magazines, newspapers—have not broken out of their past to take full advantage of their digital fate. I hope they soon will. Could you be wondering now, “What’s a book?”

By the time you read this, I hope that knowledge will have broken free of its imprisonment in media to explode in new forms. An author and friend of mine named David Weinberger wrote a book called Too Big to Know in 2012 in which he argued that our very understanding of wisdom will transform.

Before Gutenberg, people revered and sought to preserve the knowledge of the ancients of Greece and Rome. After the invention of the press—during what a group of Danish academics call the Gutenberg Parenthesis—we came to honor the work of authors and experts, the people who had access to the press and the authority in conferred. Then, after the passing of the age of the press and the advent of the internet we began to value the knowledge of the network.

“The smartest person in the room isn’t the person standing at the front lecturing us, and isn’t the collective wisdom of those in the room,” Weinberger wrote. “The smartest person in the room is the room itself: the network that joins the people and ideas in the room, and connects to those outside of it.”

So I hope you live in the age of networked knowledge, when information and the analysis and understanding of it can flow freely among many people and their machines, building worth as it spreads and gains speed. I hope you live in an age that values these new connections over the old notion of nations and institutions and their artificial boundaries. I hope you will define wisdom as the fruit of connections.

2040 is roughly the 600th anniversary of Gutenberg’s invention. By then his magnificent technological disruption may live on mostly as a memory and an exhibit in the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz. I hope you will visit it there to see where the idea of manufacturing knowledge began and how far it has come.

  • John Baxter

    Like you, Jeff, I won’t be around in 2040 (I think you have a better chance–we both have cancer histories (I’m fine) but I’m quite a bit older than you are and likely won’t make 2020).

    I think you are right in what you say above (I haven’t finished Weinberger yet, having been interrupted but I know I’m going to).

    –John

  • Jason Wheeler

    “It so happens that 2040 is the year when—according to projections of the downward trajectory of the American news industry—it is believed that the last newspaper could come off the last press.”

    This is interesting and I haven’t heard this yet, but I’m hoping that it isn’t true. While I do enjoy digital mediums, I also like the feel of paper and love reading books, turning pages etc. While things are increasingly becoming more digital, the past shouldn’t be completely lost.

  • Jason Wheeler

    “It so happens that 2040 is the year when—according to projections of the downward trajectory of the American news industry—it is believed that the last newspaper could come off the last press.”

    I once had to journal for a class what concerns me about the future of journalism. The above is exactly what I said is my biggest concern. There’s a lot to be said for holding a piece of paper. Digital mediums are good, there’s no denying that, but the history and past shouldn’t be completely lost. As you said, when the printing press came out, people were afraid that memorization would be dead. Well it’s not and I don’t think that the news industry or anything that involves the word will ever go completely digital and leave the print behind. Keeping some in print is good as well. Anything digital can become corrupted and lost, but thousands of printed words on thousands of papers? They can be preserved and not every single one of them has the capacity to be lost.

    • Jason Wheeler

      also forgive the repost. I can’t delete and I had a better response than the last. Plus this one was for a class.

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