What the world’s first Zuckerberg told us about technology

Johann Gutenberg, the inventor of printing, was last century’s ‘Man of the Millennium’


Think “awesome disruption” and most of us conjure a garage in Silicon Valley or a dorm room at Harvard. Taken together, Apple and Facebook have altered our daily existences more in the past decade than most other innovations. But the world’s first tech startup was in fact founded 565 years ago, in the German city of Mainz on the river Rhine. Three men embarked on a remarkable collaboration: the inventor Johann Gutenberg, his venture capitalist, the merchant Johann Fust, and a scribe and technician named Peter Schoeffer. Four years later they unveiled their radical new technology in the form of a massive Bible at what would later become the Frankfurt Book Fair. The technology was known as “printing.”

Historians call this invention the most important human innovation since the wheel. With hindsight we now see it as the original disruptive communications technology, a tectonic shift in how humans shared text and ideas, and preserved the cultural DNA of our species. Printed books upended the feudal structures of the medieval world, ushering in widespread literacy, undermining the Catholic Church, enabling the Protestant Reformation and laying the foundation for the scientific and democratic revolutions.

Gutenberg is the one that history remembers, but he didn’t do it alone. Behind every successful tech entrepreneur stands a team, as Walter Isaacson demonstrated in his history of the computer age, The Innovators. In the first decades after the invention, the three men were called the “Holy Trinity” of printing: to their contemporaries it was clear that they, collectively, had brought “a gift from God” into the world.

Today, 20 years into the digital revolution, we are living our own “Gutenberg moment”. Indeed, it is an article of faith in Silicon Valley, and across the global media and publishing industries, that digital technology is already doing to our print-based culture what Gutenberg’s invention did to the scribes who once laboriously copied manuscripts by hand. All the more reason, then, to observe closely what actually took place in the 15th century, if we are to draw the right conclusions from the work of that “cranky German businessman”, in the book historian Andrew Pettegree’s memorable phrase.

The parallels are striking: whole industries are disrupted, jobs are displaced, texts and images bounce freely across the known world. The rapid pace of change provokes amazement and evangelical belief in some, and a sense of loss and doubt in others. But history shows that this disruption was neither immediate, nor total: even transformational change is a process of evolution, not revolution.

Earlier this year, black cab drivers in London staged a spirited protest against Uber, the digital ride service, jamming the streets of Westminster. Much the same happened around 1462, when the scribes of Paris ran Johann Fust out of town. He had come to peddle another printed Bible, at a price that undercut the scribal competition. So many books were surely the devil’s work, the angry guild of book producers said. But what this apocryphal story does not relate is how the handworkers of the book, over time, responded to the looming threat. Like the engravers of woodcuts back in Augsburg, Germany, they soon grasped that resistance was futile, and proceeded to retrain. Many early printers were scribes who laid down their quills and learned to carve and set metal type, along with former monks and abbots, artists, scholars, paper dealers, notaries-even publicans and barber-surgeons. This ‘occupational mutation,’ was widespread, says Elizabeth Eisenstein, the printing historian; new structures and whole new categories of work emerged. The engravers demanded a place in the new business, just as today, graphic designers have migrated to the web. Few sectors of our economy have not seen business as usual disrupted in recent years: despite the pain, there is time to adapt.

Time in fact is key to the whole debate. The idea of swift and total disruption is a myth. The printing press took half a century to mature and truly change society. Manuscripts persisted for hundreds of years afterward, into the courts of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, hand-written 17th century books-even until the 19th century in some educational and religious communities. Although change certainly occurs faster today, both forms of book coexisted for many decades. The Gutenberg Bible, the first major printed book, was in fact, the Kindle of its age: it marked the first stage of the technology. It was huge and aped the design of the scribal Bibles that had come before it, just as e-books mimic printed books. Not for another fifty years did printers hit on the “killer app” for the platform of metal type: the pocket book for individual reading, which emerged around 1500 in Venice.

What happened in those fifty years holds lessons for today. The first thirty were ones of euphoria, as printers poured fortunes into an untested market with massive up-front costs. The result was a “book flood” from 1480 on, oversupply and market collapse. It was a time of spectacular bankruptcies, like the dot-com bubble of the 1990s; the vast majority of early printers went belly up. “The new book world involved a complex process of adaptation, restructuring, and much heartache,” Pettegree reports. Sound familiar? Eventually, the surviving printers consolidated and began to specialise, producing books that customers might actually want to buy.

The e-book is only seven years old, but when it appeared it caused much the same effect as Gutenberg’s Bible. It provoked panic among the established publishers and a scramble for profit, while at the same time bringing users something magical and new. Interestingly, in 2014 the rapid growth of e-readers leveled off; their share of the book market is now stable at around 30 percent. This may well mark the end of the first phase of the digital transformation of publishing; what comes next is the question.

Tto be truly transformative, a communications technology alters not just the content, but the user and society. At the time, it can appear miraculous. Some argue that the private book fundamentally changed the mindset of medieval man, leading to the rupture with his God-centered world. For the first time, humans thought of themselves as individuals with a personal relationship to the divine, an idea that Martin Luther literally hammered onto a church door in Wittenberg in 1517. Printing was initially seen as a “holy art”. It was, said Luther, “God’s highest and extremist act of grace, whereby the business of the Gospel is driven forward.” Technology leaders like Marc Andreesen, a venture capitalist who co-invented the first web browser, are equally evangelical about digital technology: Software, he predicts, “is eating the world”.

Yet in the 15th century, the backlash was not long in coming. The flood of error-ridden, shoddy printed works caused scholars to protest that printing had debased the book. Church censors meanwhile, realizing the threat of free speech to their absolute authority, started cracking down. Gutenberg’s invention was viewed “either as a blessing or a curse-sometimes both, at the same time,” says historian Curt Bühler. Fast forward half a millennium, and we stand in roughly the same place, grappling with the benefits and drawbacks. We are far enough into the transformation to ask what we want from it, and what price we are willing to pay for a screen-based life. In the realm of reading, e-books have not yet killed the physical book. For the moment, print remains the format of choice for certain texts, particularly the books we first give children. This is entirely in keeping with the long history of the book. “The road from manuscript to print was continuous and broken,” says Rudolf Hirsch, another book historian, “and I venture to say that all great discoveries, all so-called new movements, harbor the same contrasting elements, continuity and radical change.”

Even the mad magpie fervor with which we fling images and words around the Internet-whether legally, through Creative Commons, or plucking jpegs for our Twitter feeds-has been done before. A cavalier attitude toward authorship was common in the world of early books. Royal protection for printers appeared in the 1490s, but there was no real copyright until the 17th century. Mashup culture is as old as medieval compendia of differnt scribal texts and British “commonplace books” of favorite quotes. All of which suggests that the future of reading will be much like the past.

Different forms will coexist, with special forms for special uses. Booksellers are already seeing this: hardback books are getting ever more beautiful, as if to stress the printness of some texts, while e-books calmly cannibalize the paperback. As Lincoln Michel argued last year, print on demand allows anyone to create a modern version of the medieval compendium, while the possibility of a digital companion to a printed text lets authors play with the worlds of their stories in new ways.

It’s impossible to know whether there will be a profound digital shift in storystelling, and if so what it might look like. One can imagine the end of fixed text and the emergence of a new kind of shared text-read and perhaps even written-by the hive. Social reading platforms are moving in this direction, with readers comparing notes. Perhaps the book will become “unbundled”, a batch of “sharable clips” in which the author, not the work, is the celebrity cement. But as the failure of enhanced e-books shows, so far most readers still prefer a private space of reading to the interactive.

Besides, as Michel says, “we already have these interactive narratives: they’re called video games.” In the end, the book will have to hold its own against all of those entertainments vying for attention out there. Gutenberg himself just kept inventing, trying different ways to fix a word onto the page. The last media revolution holds the same message for us as the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: DON’T PANIC. There’s plenty of time.

Alix Christie is a printer, author and journalist. Her debut novel “Gutenberg’s Apprentice” is out now.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection


Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.