Posts about gutenberg

Gutenberg in Mainz

Here is the English version of an essay I wrote for the Allgemeine Zeitung of Mainz — the birthplace of Gutenberg and of his invention. I’m honored that it was translated into German by the leading expert in Gutenberg, Prof. Stephan Füssel of Mainz University, who just produced an amazing fascimile of and commentary on the Gutenberg Bible

It is fitting that we pay tribute to Johannes Gutenberg now, as his grand invention reaches its twilight. The lovely geometry of type and the grammar of text have been overtaken by the binary aesthetics of data and dots. Today, our vulgate is visual, our vernacular video. Come the 600th anniversary of movable type, it is unlikely that words will any longer be impressed on paper mechanically, now that they can be sprayed, transmitted, copied, and animated digitally.

But let us not mourn print’s passing. Let us first celebrate the example of innovation Gutenberg set. He was, perhaps, our first technology entrepreneur; Mainz was his Silicon Valley. He had to grapple with challenges similar to any startup’s today. Fundamental to the business he began — as in today’s economy — was the necessity of scale, of manufacturing fonts in large numbers so that books could in turn be manufactured with then-unimaginable speed and efficiency. He tamed many technologies: mechanics to build the ingenious, hand-held mold used to make letters with great precision; metallurgy to produce a lead amalgam that would cool quickly but withstand many impressions; chemistry to formulate the ink whose midnight blackness in his Bibles still has not faded over centuries. He designed an industrial process with division of labor. And he had to innovate new business models based on using risk capital before revenue would flow (which is how he lost much of his business to his financier, Johann Fust).

The epochal impact of Gutenberg’s work will be measured for still another millenium. “Print technology created the public,” said Marshall McLuhan. “Invent the printing press and democracy is inevitable,” Thomas Carlyle is often quoted as saying. The Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, even the Industrial Revolution — could any of these fires have been lit without printing’s spark? I am not arguing for technological determinism — that printing caused these disruptions with certain outcome — but instead that printing made them more possible. The acts were still human; the tools Gutenberg’s.

At the dawn of the net age, we still see the future in the analog of the past, in Gutenberg’s terms. Two Danish professors, Tom Pettitt and Lars Ole Sauerberg, argue that Gutenberg’s centuries were an exception in human history — the Gutenberg parenthesis, they call it. The book — a container — made us see in the world as packages with boundaries, with a beginning and an end. Says McLuhan: “The line, the continuum — this sentence is a prime example — became the organizing principle of life.” Thus we came to call literature and journalism “content” to fill containers: books and later newspapers. Books standardized our languages and helped define us as distinct peoples and nations with boundaries of their own. With the copyright law that followed Gutenberg by a century, books and that which filled them could be bought and sold as property. With the addition of steam power to the press, we came to measure mankind by volume: mass media, mass marketing, mass culture, mass man. Books — more abundant than ever but still a scarcity — supported the elitism of the author, the academic, the expert, and eventually the celebrity.

And now we have the internet. Invent it and what is possible? It is too soon to know. Today, we are only 24 years from the introduction of the commercial web in 1994. Reckoning by Gutenberg time, that puts us at about the year 1474. Consider that Martin Luther was not born until 1483. What if our Luther — the visionary who will fully understand and exploit the greater potential of the internet — is not yet born?

In the internet, we have a world in which every person can be connected to every other person and to any fact instantly. We have the opportunity to collect and build upon information as never before; now our machines can manufacture not just books but intelligence itself. Because we now communicate with images on Instagram, video on YouTube, and symbols as emoji, the definition of literacy has opened up so everyone is empowered to speak, be heard, and create a public. What becomes then of our economy of content, our notion of nations, our ideas of education, our standards of culture, our laws governing ownership of content or data, and our hierarchy of elites vs. masses? Who knows?

I would like to think that we can return to the other side of Gutenberg’s parenthesis and learn once again how to hold conversations as the threads that weave a society. I would like to see us move from a society built on transactions to one built once again on interactions with ideas and facts, emotions and empathy, and each other. Can the net help us gather into communities more easily and then to build bridges among them? Can it help offer the power of education and creativity to many more people in the world? Can the internet help us recognize our connected humanity again?

Today — especially in the narrative of media — it may feel like the opposite is occuring, as if we live in an age of cold, impersonal technology that is challenging our institutions, threatening our jobs, grabbing our data, spreading lies, amplifying hate. But the machines aren’t doing all that. We are. Or rather, some small number of people — trolls, thieves, demagogues, racists — have learned how to exploit weaknesses in both technology and society before the rest of us have a chance to plug the leaks in our morality.

What I fear most is fear itself. I worry that society is entering into a full-blown moral panic over technology and that — especially in Germany and Europe — laws will be enacted to limit not only the risks but also the opportunities the internet brings. Please remember that when Gutenberg invented his press, leaders of church and state alike feared it — not without reason — and tried to license and limit its use. “To what corner of the world do they not fly, these swarms of new books?” Erasmus complained. “The very multitude of them is hurtful to scholarship, because it creates a glut and even in good things satiety is most harmful.” After the English Civil War, writer Richard Atkyns worried that printers had “filled the Kingdom with so many Books, and the Brains of the People with so many contrary Opinions, that these Paper-pellets become as dangerous as Bullets.” Eventually, though, society and its institutions learned how to live with and by the book. We can and should do the same with the net. To do that, we will need to:

  • Study and learn from prior disruptions in society — starting with Gutenberg’s own — to give us perspective and inform our decisions today.
  • Rely on evidence of actual harm before assuming the worst and acting on that fear to legislate and regulate. I am not convinced that the internet is addicting us or killing privacy or even that the fake news on it can sway elections. Nonetheless, we certainly must become smarter about recognizing and counteracting efforts to manipulate politics, markets, and lives with technology.
  • Negotiate new norms of behavior. We have decided it would be rude to take a phone with a camera into a locker room or sauna. We are close to deciding when it is OK to pick up a phone to check messages and when it is not. A far more difficult question is how we negotiate the the balance between free speech and threatening, hateful, manipulative, or false speech.
  • Most of all — as difficult as it might seem in this age of AfD, Trump, and Brexit — we need to regain faith in the sense and civility of our fellow man and woman. Technology alone does not corrupt the human brain and soul. Despite fears that it would, the book did not ruin civilization. The internet won’t either. We’re too smart for that.
In the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz. Photo by Stefan Sämmer for the Allgemeine Zeitung

Send your comment to the FCC on net neutrality. Here’s mine.

I just filed my comments on net neutrality with the FCC, adding to the 647,000 already there. You should, too. It’s quick. It’s easy. It’s important. It’s democracy. Do it here. And do it by July 15, the deadline. [Note: The deadline was extended to July 18.] Here’s mine:

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I am Jeff Jarvis, professor and director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York and author of the books “Public Parts” and “What Would Google Do?” and the ebook “Gutenberg the Geek.”

I ask you to govern your decisions regarding net neutrality and broadband policy according to the principles of equality that have made the internet the powerful engine of freedom, speech, innovation, and economic development that it has already become.

As Sen. Al Franken said at the South by Southwest conference in 2011, we proponents of net neutrality are not asking you to change the internet; we are asking you to protect the net from change imposed by the companies trying to exploit their positions of control. “We have net neutrality right now,” Sen. Franken said. “And we don’t want to lose it. That’s all. The fight for net neutrality isn’t about improving the Internet. It’s not about changing the Internet at all. It’s about ensuring that it stays just the way it is.”

I put it this way in a question to then-President Nicolas Sarkozy at the eG-8 meeting he convened in Paris that same year: “First, do no harm.” I urge you to take that Hippocratic Oath for the net. Do not allow it to change. Preserve its equality.

The first principle upon which the net must be maintained is that all bits are created equal. If any bit is stopped on its way by a censor in China or Iran … if a bit is slowed by an ISP because it did not carry a premium toll … if a bit is detoured and substituted by that ISP to promote its service over a competitor’s … or indeed if a bit is spied upon by the government of China or Iran or the United States … then no bit can be presumed to be free. The net is built edge-to-edge so that anyone can speak with anyone without discrimination.

Another principle upon which the net must be maintained is that it is open and distributed and if any institution — government or corporate oligopoly — claims sovereignty over it, then it is no longer the net. Of course, I recognize the irony of asking a government agency for help but that is necessary when a few parties hold undue control over choke points in this architecture. The real answer is to ensure open and broad competition, for any provider in a competitive marketplace that offers throttled, incomplete, inferior service will lose; in an oligopoly, such providers use their control for profitability over service. Corporations by their nature exploit control. Government protects consumers from undue exercise of such control. That is your job.

Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt has offered another principle: the permissionless nature of the net. “Let’s give credit to the people who foresaw the internet, opened it up, designed it so it would not have significant choke points, and made it possible for random people including twenty-four-year-olds in a dorm to enter and create,” he said.

My entrepreneurial journalism students can barely afford to start the companies they are creating, the companies that I believe will be the salvation of journalism, scaling up from the bottom, not from the top. Innovation, we already know, will come from the entrepreneurs over the corporate incumbents. These entrepreneurs cannot afford to pay premiums to ISPs for access to their customers.

We know that corporate incumbents in this industry will abuse the control they have to disadvantage competitors. I filed a complaint with the Commission last year when Verizon refused to connect my Google Nexus 7 LTE tablet to its network as required by the Commission’s own rules governing that spectrum as “open.” The incumbent ISPs have demonstrated well that they choose not to understand the definition of “open.”

“Changes in the information age will be as dramatic as those in the Middle Ages,” James Dewar wrote in a 1998 Rand Corporation paper. “The printing press has been implicated in the Reformation, the Renaissance, and the Scientific Revolution, all of which had profound impacts on their eras; similarly profound changes may already be underway in the information age.” The internet is our Gutenberg press. Note well that it took 50 years after the invention of Gutenberg’s press for the book to take on the form we know today. It took 100 years, says Gutenberg scholar Elizabeth Eisenstein, for the impact of the book on society to be fully recognized. It took 150 years and the development of postal services before anyone thought of using the press to create a newspaper and 400 years — with the advent of steam technology and mass production — before newspapers were in the hands of the common man and woman.

We do not know what the internet is yet and what it will foster. It is too soon to limit it and to grant control over it to a few, powerful companies. I urge you to protect its freedoms by enforcing a principle of net neutrality and to nurture its growth and development with a broadband policy that fosters competition over control and — here is my best hope — I urge you to establish the principle of a human right to connect to the network with equality for all.

Thank you.

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Read the latest comments here. (Mine is not posted yet. I assume it will be after the weekend.)

Gutenberg the Geek, reviewed

Some kind folks have reviewed my Kindle Single Gutenberg the Geek. Snippets:

Craig Newmark: Gutenberg was a geek (I prefer “nerd”, being one) whose work invented our current day, much like our work together on the Internet is defining the future. Jeff does a great job with the story of Gutenberg, correcting misconceptions including my own, and then show how it relates to Silicon Valley entrepreneurship and its context in evolving world history. This is a really big deal, beyond my ability to articulate.

Rex Hammock: (My only disappointment: He should have named the ebook What Would Gutenberg Do? in reference to his previous book, What Would Google Do?)…. In Jarvis’ compact and concise book, he fills it with inside-geek references to today’s era of new technology and new business models built on that technology while revealing that others have gone down this path before — hundreds of years before. I feel certain no one else has written a book of any length that finds parallels in how Gutenberg and the founders of Airbnb.com funded their startups — but it’s that kind of informative, and fun, comparison that enables this to be an informative, but quick, read.

Walter Reade: I listen to Jeff Jarvis every week on the “This Week in Google” podcast. He drives me crazy 80% of the time. But, he’s worth listening to the other 20%. Jeff is not afraid to think. He is not afraid to weave narratives and create hypotheses from observations from the modern world and from the world of history. He has a relentless habit of extracting meaning from events and trends, and expressing it is ways that make me think. Gutenberg the Geek is a wonderful example of Jeff’s style of thinking. The “Kindle Single” is worth reading simply as a summary of the life and accomplishment of Gutenberg. It is an important reminder to us how Gutenberg worked for years to achieve what he did. He didn’t wake up and invent the printing press. He perfected his craft improvement upon improvement, while at the same time wrestling with the challenges of life and business. If you’re so inclined, though, the book will also give you a major serving of food for thought. In short, can we afford to stifle the modern-day equivalent of the printing press (i.e., the internet), because it too, like the printing press, is disruptive to various powers that be? Jeff raises those questions quite eloquently.

Jeremy Aldrich: …This Kindle Single isn’t really about what made Gutenberg a geek; it’s about what made him a great start-up founder. Jarvis gives the facts (as much as we can know them) of Gutenberg’s story and writes that “In all, Gutenberg — just like a modern-day startup — depended on exploiting new efficiencies, achieving scale, reusing assets, dividing specialized labor, and setting standards.” I had always pictured Gutenberg working alone and tinkering with the design of his printing press, but the author describes the business side of the story (which is quite compelling) and makes frequent comparisons to modern-day companies and entrepreneurs. At the very end, he pivots to a frequent (for Jeff Jarvis) theme of advocating for Internet freedom, which felt a little awkwardly tacked on. And speaking of awkwardly tacked on, here are two quotes I highlighted: “This was a time of change and disruption — which is like planting season for entrepreneurs.”
“Don’t today’s entrepreneurs dream for a fraction of Gutenberg’s impact? He was the inventor of history’s greatest platform.” A good quick read, stylistically somewhere between a Wikipedia entry and an article in WIRED.

Gutenberg the Geek: A Kindle Single

I’ve just published Gutenberg the Geek, arguing that the inventor of printing was our first geek, the original technology entrepreneur. I find wonderful parallels in the challenges and opportunities he faced and those that face Silicon Valley (or entrepreneurial journalism) startups today. So I retell his story from an entrepreneurial perspective, examining how he overcame technology hurdles, how he operated with the secrecy of a Steve Jobs but then shifted to openness, how he raised capital and mitigated risk, and how, in the end, his cash flow and equity structure did him in. This is also the inspiring story of a great disruptor. That is why I say Gutenberg is the patron saint of entrepreneurs.

The Kindle Single came out of my obsession with Gutenberg that developed while I researched Public Parts. I also wanted to learn how Kindle Singles work (more on that later) -… and prove that I have nothing against charging for content! But I’m not charging much, only 99 cents (free in the Amazon lending library).

Tomorrow, I’ll link to an excerpt from the piece. I’d be honored if you bought the piece and said what you think here or at the Amazon page.

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.