Screen Backlash? Lessons from Gutenberg


Introducing the session Lessons from Gutenberg, Steffi Czerny, said that often we have to look to the past before we can see the future. Johannes Gutenberg certainly co-sculpted the world as we know it, when he invented the printing press in 15th century Germany. Jeff Jarvis, journalism professor and author of “What Would Google Do?”, moderated the discussion on the lessons of Gutenberg. His speakers were Alex Christie and Erik Spiekermann. Christie is an American journalist and author of “Gutenberg’s Apprentice”, her debut novel which puts a human face on the birth of the printing press in medieval Germany. Next to being an honorary professor at the University of the Arts Bremen, Erik Spiekermann is a type designer, who created the typefaces FF Meta and ITC Officina amongst others.

Jeff Jarvis began the discussion by saying he sees many parallels between the current situation regarding the Internet, and common sentiment when Gutenberg’s printing press was launched. “The fear that spread back then, the impact and uncertainty about the book are very parallel to where we are today,” said Jarvis. In many ways, Gutenberg can be seen as the world’s “first technology entrepreneur”, Jarvis continued, alluding to the argument he put forth is his 2012 Kindle Single, “Gutenberg the Geek”.

Christie picked up on this thought and took it a step further. “I would say the Gutenberg press was the world’s first tech start-up, as Gutenberg wasn’t working alone”. The book, then, was the “killer app” of this new technology, and the Gutenberg bible the Kindle of its day.

"Books are perfect for certain uses"

Speaking to Spiekermann, Jarvis next asked whether we had moved beyond the age of the word into the world of audio. “I don’t think so. We read more than we ever did before,” Spiekermann said. According to font designer, the book reached its optimal form 600 years ago already, and Christie too said the book is "perfect for certain uses".

Jarvis posited a different opinion. According to a group of academics in Denmark, the book constitutes a sort of parenthesis in history. Before Gutenberg, there was very little sense of ownership and authorship, and knowledge was changed as it was passed along. With books, ownership and authorship was clear. But now, with the Internet, we have returned to fighting about ownership and authorship.

Plus, should we not also move on from the book, which cannot be updated or commented on, Jarvis asked.

Spiekermann disagreed that this was a weakness of the book. “Not everything needs to be updated and commentated. We like stories, whether written or filmed,” he said. There is a virtue to fixity and permanence, Christie agreed with Spiekermann, because without it, the trove we have would never have been preserved.

The other great virtue of the printed book in particular is the experience it provides. Christie referred to this as immersion. Reading a book you can dive into it and focus solely on the object in a way you cannot do when reading text off a screen. More and more, the book is becoming appreciated as an object. Hardbacks are designed and not just produced. And children's books too are selling well.

Gutenberg - the first start-up founder

Turning back to the idea of Gutenberg as an entrepreneur who instigated a paradigm shift, Jarvis asked how big the present moment is in the Net? “It’s very big, and also very dangerous,” answered Christie, who was an apprentice at a letterpress printer herself. Indeed, Johannes Gutenberg once said of his printing press that: “like a new star it shall scatter the darkness of ignorance, and cause a light heretofore unknown to shine amongst men”. The Catholic Church was fast to twig that Gutenberg’s press presented a change the Church could not control, and so they introduced censorship. Christie sees strong parallels between that censorship and current discussions on Internet content.

Spiekermann said there was also the threat posed by the fact the the Internet is owned by four or five monopolies. “But I think things are going to turn around - and like Christie, I don’t think we have reached the apex yet.”

Mentioned in this live blog

Jeff jarvis quadr
Jeff Jarvis
CUNY Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism
Professor & Director
CUNY Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism
Basking Ridge, NJ
Christie alix bw
Alix Christie
Author and journalist
Contributor, The Economist
Author and journalist
Eric spiekermann bw
Erik Spiekermann
Professor, Typographer & Designer

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