Posts about gutenberg

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.

Where Gutenberg worked

I took a detour on a trip to Europe so I could visit Mainz and the Gutenberg Museum, having become obsessed with the great man and his magnificent disruption as both an inventor and an entrepreneur.

It was awe-inspiring to stand before the first known page of his printing (a snippet from the Sibylline prophesy, found in the binding of another book). It’s not beautiful; betas rarely are. But next to it is the culmination of Gutenberg’s art in three of his his Bibles, his masterpieces.

Another case captured my imagination. In it were the indulgences the Catholic Church could make and sell at scale, thanks to printing. Next to them were three of Martin Luther’s pamphlets, which he could also print at scale and it is that scale that enabled him to so disrupt the Church.

Also in that case were political broadsides printed by Gutenberg’s successors–his funder, Johann Fust, who called the startup’s debt and took over the business–in a battle between two bishops in Mainz. I write in Public Parts:

The press quickly made an impact on the political structure of society. According to Albert Kapr’s definitive biography, Johann Gutenberg: The Man and his Invention, among the earliest nonreligious publications produced in the great man’s shop by his successors—Johann Fust and his son-in-law Peter Schöffer—were political pamphlets. A series of broadsides from each side of a church fight to control the city of Mainz were published on the same presses in 1461, demonstrating from the start that this tool of publicness, like most to follow, was neutral and agnostic. “All these pamphlets were aimed at gaining public support for the respective protagonists and defaming their opponents,” Kapr writes. “To the matériel of warfare—halberds, rapiers, swords, harquebuses and cannon—psychological weapons had been added, which could be delivered by means of the printing press.” Here we see publishing’s nascent role in the birth of media, propaganda and the public sphere they would influence.

On another floor was an exhibit about newspapers and their predecessors, including small publications called posts. Pardon my blog-centric view of that, but I quite like that on blogs, we also have posts. I was struck by the continuum of media on display there and the reminder that neither print nor newspapers were forever; they were each invented. Each may be replaced. Soon, I’ll post a piece I’ve been working on about Gutenberg as probably the first technology entrepreneur. In it, I note that printing by impressing ink on paper may be seeing its twilight, replaced by ink-jet technologies just as photography on paper has been replaced by digital.

Mind you, books and printing will not disappear. After my visit to the museum, I had the great privilege of having lunch with Bertram Schmidt-Friderichs, thanks to a connection made via Twitter by his wife and partner, Karin Schmidt-Friderichs. They run a wonderful small press, Verlag Hermann Schmidt Mainz, publishing and printing beautiful small books about art and typography. Where better in the world to do that? Bertram said that books will continue but as special, premium products. I agree. In that, they recapture Gutenberg’s original vision of print as beauty.

At the museum, I was lucky to be around as a TV crew was filming a demonstration of the technologies in Gutenberg’s pressroom. The press already existed for olives, grapes, and paper; Gutenberg had to adapt it for printing. Ink already existed, of course, but Gutenberg had to adapt that, too, to his needs. But his critical and unsung invention was the hand-held mold that enabled Gutenberg to make fonts–thousands of letters needed for the Bible–quickly and consistently. It required ingenious design and no small expertise in metallurgy and I was delighted to finally see one in action, below.


Who says our way is the right way?

As I sit on the board of Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic, I have been thinking about the different ways people learn. RFB&D gives students the tools to learn by listening. We call that a disability. I think it may soon be seen as an advantage.

A group of Danish academics say we are passing through the other side of what they wonderfully call the Gutenberg Parenthesis, leaving the structured, serial, permanent, authored, controlled era of text and returning, perhaps, to what came before the press: a time when communication and content cross, when process dominates product, when knowledge is distributed by people passing it around, when we remix it along the way, when we are more oral and aural.

That’s what makes me think that RFB&D’s clients may end up with a leg up. They understand better than the textually oriented among us how to learn through hearing. Rather than being seen as the people who need extra help, perhaps they will be in the position to give the rest of us help.

And I thought that as I read Matt Richtel’s piece in the New York Times today: Growing up digital, wired for distraction. It starts off lamenting that a student got only 43 pages through Cat’s Cradle. But as @HowardOwens responded on Twitter: “Gee, a 17-year-old only gets 43 pages into his summer reading assignment. Like, that’s never happened before.”

Richtel and the experts he calls blame technology, of course, for shortening our attention spans, just as Nick Carr and Andrew Keen do, lamenting the change. But the assumption they all make is that the way we used to do it is the right way. What if, as I said in Short Attention Span Theater (aka Twitter), we’re evolving:

“Maybe the issue isn’t that we’re too distracted to read but that reading can finally catch up with how our brains really work.”

Richtel, to his credit, focuses at the end of his piece on a distracted student who can, indeed, focus — not on the books he’s assigned but on the video he’s making. Maybe that’s because he’s creating. Maybe it’s because he’s working with tools that give him feedback. Maybe it’s because he is communicating with an audience.

I spend time on this topic in my next book, Public Parts (when I can concentrate on writing it — that is, when I’m not blogging and tweeting as I am right now): Technology brings change; change brings fear and retrenchment. Gutenberg scholar Elizabeth Eisenstein reminds us that for 50 years after the invention of the press, we continued to put old wine in this new cask, replicating scribal fonts, content, and models. That’s what’s happening now: We are trying to fit our old world into the new one that is emerging. We’re assuming the old way is the right way.

Mind you, one of the joys of writing this book is that I’ve had cause to start reading books again. I’ll confess I’d fallen off the shelf.

Now I’m enjoying reading books as part of the process of creating, sharing, communicating. I’m learning not just by reading and absorbing but by rethinking and remixing. And I’m thinking the result of my next project after this one may not be a book but something else — a talk, for example; a book may be a byproduct rather than the goal.

So is this new generation distracted or advanced? How can they best learn? How can they teach? What tools can we use today besides books? What new opportunities do all their tools present? That’s what educators should be asking. That’s the discussion I’d like to see The Times start.

: @SivaVaid(hyanathan) just said on Twitter: “There are no wires in the human mind. So it can’t be ‘rewired’ Get a grip.” Right. What can be rewired are media and education and that’s what we’re seeing happen — or what we should be seeing happen.

Books as makers of publics

Here’s my talk to the O’Reilly Tools of Change conference in Frankfurt before the Book Fair there, in which I argue that books are tools for making publics and now that we all have presses publishers must ask how they can play a role in helping us make publics — and how they can protect our tools of publicness.

I’m having trouble setting the width of the player, so go to the “more” link and you can watch the videos.