Gutenberg the Geek: History's First Technology Entrepreneur and Silicon Valley's Patron Saint by Jeff Jarvis Kindle Single
Review by Kevin Bonham (guest reviewer)
There's something delightfully transgressive in writing an essay celebrating Johannes Gutenberg, the man who invented the printing press, and publishing it in a medium that may end the dominance of his creation. In fact, in his new Kindle single Gutenberg the Geek, Jeff Jarvis wastes no time with sentimentality over the decline of print. Instead, he argues that Gutenberg should be an inspiration to present day entrepreneurs and "the patron saint of Silicon Valley." It might seem strange to review an ebook about the printing press on a site dedicated to science writing, but bear with me. Jarvis argues that we are in a period of upheaval that parallels the upheaval of the 15th century, where the internet plays the disruptive role that the printing press once did, and he believes that the consequences for society may be more profound than we realize.
The eerie similarities between the printing press and the internet that Jarvis describes would be familiar to anyone that's read his blog, but may surprise newcomers. From cashflow problems and venture capital to secrecy and idea-stealing competitors, Gutenberg had to deal with many of the same challenges as today's technology entrepreneurs. Jarvis describes how
Gutenberg — just like a modern-day startup — depended on exploiting new efficiencies, achieving scale, reusing assets, dividing specialized labor, and setting standards. Thus a new industry — indeed, perhaps manufacturing itself — was born.
Jarvis does not contribute any new scholarship on Gutenberg here - he freely admits that his historical exposition is taken entirely from other authors. But for those not well acquainted with 15th century Europe, he does a good job condensing previous work on Gutenberg to set the stage. Beginning with Gutenberg's childhood in the German city of Mainz, we're introduced to an era rife with conflict. Nobility battled for control over resources and oppressed peasants rose up against their lords. Throw in a debt crisis (with Gutenberg's hometown playing the role of Greece) and political upheaval (the Reformation rather than the Arab Spring) and Jarvis makes it easy to see echoes of the past in present day circumstances.
Yet other similarities carry more weight, and it's in the analysis linking the 15th century period of upheaval to today, in comparing the printing press and the internet as platforms that enable innovation, that this work shines. To say that the internet is changing the world is so cliché that it's almost meaningless, but reading Gutenberg the Geek made it real for me.
Our accepted wisdom today is that the change we are experiencing is pushing us forward at lightning speed. But I'm coming to wonder whether, instead, it is happening very slowly. That is, we are only at the bare beginning of the change we will undergo and we cannot yet fathom its full shape and extent. [emphasis mine]
We're so busy thinking about the death of newspapers and Facebook's huge IPO, it's hard to realize that this is just the beginning. We've only had the internet for 17 years. Jarvis asks us to imagine ourselves 17 years after the invention of the printing press, trying to predict the impact that it would have on humanity and on society over the next 500 years. Early uses of the printing press merely recapitulated the work that scribes would do - early typefaces were modeld on hand written script and the process was even called "automated writing." But the speed and efficiency of printing soon enabled new forms of writing, new genres and ultimately, Jarvis says, "changed not just writing but politics, religion, education, our sense of ourselves, our memories."
Today, we're right on the cusp of moving from understanding publishing on the internet as "digital print" to something else entirely. The internet is already having disruptive effects, and we may only be witnessing the leading edge. Which brings me back to why this review belongs on DtU. In his introductory post for this website, Carl Zimmer wrote that our current
relationship to science books is less than 500 years old. As soon as Gutenberg introduced movable type, he ignited a fierce demand for books about science. Vesalius published the first modern book about anatomy, On the Fabric of the Human Body, in 1543, and he sold 4000 copies in a matter of months[...] When media change, however, possibilities change with them. Vesalius knew this 460 years ago. His book had two parts: the text, in which he explained how human anatomy work; and the art, in the form of 200 woodblocks based on Vesalius's knowledge of the human body from autopsies. Vesalius packed the manuscript and the woodblocks on mules and sent them over the Alps to Basel, Switzerland, with explicit instructions. Every copy of the book had the same exquisitely accurate, enlightening mix of art and text. Vellum scrolls could never have held Vesalius's dream.
Ebooks are once again redrawing the boundaries.
Jarvis' ebook does not push at the boundaries of what publishing can be (it could work equally well in print), but its central thesis is that we should make the internet a platform where the boundaries are free to be pushed - maybe even destroyed. Jarvis says he be became obsessed with Gutenberg while researching his most recent book (a printed one), Public Parts (I reviewed that book here), which argues that government control and regulation intended to protect privacy may stifle innovation and prevent the internet from reaching it's full potential. Sometimes, it seems as if Gutenberg the Geek isn't really about Gutenburg. Rather, in portraying the endless parallels between the printing press and the internet, Jarvis wants us to view them as functionally interchangeable, so that the freedoms we enjoy for that 15th century platform are extended to the 21st century one.
And for a model of Jarvis' fears about where the internet is headed, we can return again to science. Last month on my blog, I wrote about the history and future of academic science publishing - the way that professional scientists share knowledge about their latest discoveries. The printing press enabled the scientific revolution, and new forms of knowledge distribution like Vesalius' anatomy book, but in the following centuries it also led to the rise of powerful publishing conglomerates that are now in the business walling off that knowledge. Institutional barriers allow these publishers to control the scientific presses, and control the flow of scientific information. This is why Jarvis' advocacy for freedom on the internet resonates with me - his fear of regulations that stifle innovation aren't just a hypothesis, I see an example every time I want to read a scientific paper. Right now, some scientists are beginning to push back against the control of scientific publishers, even as those publishers try to use government to enforce their monopoly. In my blog post, I argue that science benefits when the flow of information is unrestricted, and Jarvis seems to be saying that the same principal holds true for the rest of human knowledge as well:
Just as we have a right to speak and to freedom of the press, we have a right to connect and assemble and act online. Just as books should not be censored, neither should bits. Just as Gutenberg's printing press remains open and distributed and cannot be controlled, so must the internet stay free.
Kevin Bonham is a graduate student studying the immune system at Harvard University. He blogs about microbes and the immune system at We, Beasties on the Scienceblogs network.