From movable type to data deluge

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Jan. 1999, pp. 24-37

"This article appeared in the January 1999 issue and is reprinted with permission from THE WORLD & I, a publication of the WASHINGTON TIMES Corporation, copyright (c) 1999."

by John Gehl and Suzanne Douglas

Instant, Global News and the Hypertext Web Are Carrying Us into Realms of "Information" Access That Alter Knowledge Foundations Laid by Gutenberg's Printing Technology.

      Marshall McLuhan--the pundit best known for his slogan "the medium is the message"-described the information age as an age of "all-at-onceness," in which space and time are overcome by television, jets, and computers. In such an all-at-once world, linear, "cause-effective" thinking processes give way to a "discontinuous integral consciousness," so that points of view and specialist goals are replaced by an overall awareness of the mosaic world of a "retribalized" society. McLuhan's seminal work, UNDERSTANDING MEDIA, was written in the early sixties. It's time to ask whether he was right: Is the modern world more "all-at-once" than ever?
It would certainly seem so. The media world that existed in McLuhan's time can now be remembered as almost genteel. Back then, in the United States there were just three TV networks and an orderly schedule of mass-consumption shows like ED SULLIVAN and I LOVE LUCY; now, thanks (if thanks is the right word) to cable, satellite, and computer networks, we are given all news all the time, all comedy all the time, all MTV all the time, all shopping all the time, all anything you want all the time. Could anything be more "all-at-once" than that?
Correct answer: yes. The digital revolution, with its glut of evermore compelling and evermore intrusive (and less apparent) technologies, continues to develop at the frenetic pace of Moore's law (the accurate prediction by Intel cofounder Gordon Moore that microprocessor power will double every 18 months). And things will get even worse (or even better, if you prefer).
George Gilder, author of the privately circulated GILDER TECHNOLOGY REPORT, foresees a fundamental technological shift with "catastrophic consequences for some and incredible profits for others." He says the future will bring us universal technology "as mobile as your watch, as personal as your wallet," a technology that will be able to recognize speech, navigate streets, collect your mail, and even cash your paycheck.
And he is not alone in predicting radical lifestyle changes driven by technology. Others say that soon you will be sporting wearable computers that can, among other things, continuously monitor your vital signs and general health. The world was fast enough in the twentieth century, but now it's getting faster and faster and faster--so fast that it's experienced as "all-at-once."
In the face of such rapid technological advance, it's no wonder that "blur" has become the latest buzzword for how information is experienced (and thus how the world itself is experienced). The relentless immediacy of today's media leaves no time for reflection before the next onslaught of "news"--making one wonder whether there's truly any real news, real information, left to report.


This kind of quickening has occurred once before--though at a slower pace and on a smaller scale--when Gutenberg's invention of the movable-type printing process eliminated the need for books to be laboriously and expensively hand-copied for limited distribution to the elite, those very few people rich enough and educated enough to use them. In doing so, Gutenberg gave the world far more than that famous Bible; he gave it the conditions for revolution. The process he invented opened the way for smaller and more portable texts, lowered the cost of books, and encouraged a great surge in literacy, individualism,...and rebellion. Added to a growing discontent with the Catholic Church, printing played a key role in ushering in the Reformation (as well as the later Renaissance), and created the conditions for nationalism itself.
In 1439 in Mainz, Germany, goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg found he'd been given bad information about the date of a religious fair where he and his investors had planned to sell small mirrors to the pilgrims. What does an entrepreneur do about a missed opportunity? Create another opportunity. The goldsmith convinced his investors to back an alternative project--one involving the making of individual letters of metal so as to combine and recombine them to print words on paper. Seventeen years later he produced his first and best-known printed document: the Gutenberg Bible.  Among the results of this strategic redirection were a new Europe and an entirely new world. In their 1995 book, THE AXEMAKER'S GIFT: A DOUBLE-EDGED HISTORY OF HUMAN CULTURE, James Burke and Robert Ornstein write:
"The effect of Gutenberg's letters would be to change the map of Europe, considerably reduce the power of the Catholic Church, and alter the very nature of the knowledge on which political and religious control was based. The printing press would also help to stimulate nascent forms of capitalism and provide the economic underpinning for a new kind of community."
Although ecclesiastic and civil authorities at first looked benignly on the apparently pious nature of the act of publishing the Bible in German (and, soon thereafter, in all the other European languages), the publisher's intentions were far less important than the publishing consequences. Using the vernacular languages legitimized those languages, detracted from Rome's authority, and made it easier for monarchs to enforce their laws and extend bureaucratic control far beyond what had been previously possible.
Bibles were just the beginning; they were followed by an immense number of almanacs, technical books, and scholarly treatises, as Gutenberg was imitated by scores of competitors. The most interesting of these competitors may have been Christophe Plantin, a printer who ran the biggest publishing house in Europe. As Burke and Ornstein explain, Plantin and his fellow printers were "the first real capitalists."
"In Plantin's shop, university professors and ex-abbots acted as proofreaders and text editors, scholars of all subjects checked text for factual accuracy, artists prepared woodcuts and engravings, craftsmen printed or advised on books relating to their own area of expertise, and merchants became involved as financial backers."
Printing led to the prominence of specialists and experts, who wrote books on every subject and fed Europe's growing demand for information of all kinds--the old, reliable kind and the novel, heretical kind that fomented dissent and upset all the traditional relationships that had sustained medieval Europe. Because of portable, printed books (and later newspapers), people could study the Bible without relying on a priest, learn a subject without going to a master, and think thoughts without asking for permission. Things would never be the same again, because ideas were now as free as air. The genie was out of the bottle.

     And that genie--we now know--was at the head of a long family tree.

In a 1964 interview, McLuhan explained that nationalism didn't exist in Europe "until typography enabled every literate man to see his mother tongue analytically as a uniform entity. The printing press, by spreading mass-produced books and printed matter across Europe, turned the vernacular regional languages of the day into uniform closed system's of national languages--just another variant of what we call mass media--and gave birth to the entire concept of nationalism."
After books came newspapers. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries they spread across Europe and the New World, fomenting change and allowing vying factions to express individual opinions. Social transformation was wrought not only by the free flow of ideas empowered by the printed word but by the fundamentally new approach to machine use that was embodied in the printing process. McLuhan explained:
"Printing, remember, was the first mechanization of a complex handicraft; by creating an analytic sequence of step-by-step processes, it became the blueprint of all mechanization to follow. The most important quality of print is its repeatability; it is a visual statement that can be reproduced indefinitely, and repeatability is the root of the mechanical principle that has transformed the world since Gutenberg. Typography, by producing the first uniformly repeatable commodity, also created Henry Ford, the first assembly line and the first mass production. Movable type was archetype and prototype for all subsequent industrial development. Without phonetic literacy and the printing press, modern industrialism would be impossible. It is necessary to recognize literacy as typographic technology, shaping not only production and marketing procedures but all other areas of life, from education to city planning."


If only McLuhan were still alive! In these last years of the twentieth century, the Internet and the World Wide Web have changed the very nature of communication by radically realigning the relationships between the people involved in a communications process. Whereas books, newspapers, radio, and television are all essentially "one to many" broadcast media (i.e., one source transmitting to many readers, listeners, or viewers), the Internet allows a surfer to exercise complete control over what is now an "interaction with" rather than a "reception of" news or information. Hypertext links and "search engines" allow Internet users to become entirely and quickly free of the confines of the information sender's intended message. Whereas the communication process has in the past typically implied an assumption that the message sender had more information than the message receiver, now the relationship is effectively reversed. The one with control is not the one with the message but the one with the mouse.
Control of the mouse also provides control of the clock, and these developments combine to dramatically revise the relationship between the consumer of news and information and the medium through which news and information are delivered. Rather than passively waiting for the six o'clock, 30-minute scripted presentation of whatever it is the "major" networks want you to know, you can now check your favorite Web sites (AP? MSNBC? Excite? the Drudge Report?) for regularly updated reports on news you can tailor to your specific profile. You can even have the news shipped to your desktop, pushed on you rather than laboriously pulled off the Web. You are the boss.


On the other hand, being the boss isn't what it used to be. Having control doesn't mean getting what you want. If what you want is real information, you may have a problem, because the ubiquity, immediacy, and relentless repetition of media communication have resulted in the decline of the very commodity all these media purport to be selling: news.
News is surprise. In the classic formulation, news is when man bites dog. It's a "classic" formulation because the event described is not just news, it's big news, for when it happens it is extremely surprising.
But there is less and less surprise in the "global village" (one of many expressions coined by McLuhan). When the news is constant and continuous and always with us, when we are saturated with news, there is no real news. Real news is from elsewhere. When everyone is in the same room (or the same global village), there is no real news, because everyone can see what everyone else is doing. Surprise is impossible. News is impossible. The people in the room don't need information about what's going on there.
And so as we become increasingly submerged in a steady, enveloping stream of "news" and "information" presented live by Web or television from places all over the globe, we are now at last in McLuhan's world of "all-at-onceness." Whereas the notion of news requires discrete "news events," the current reality is a miasma of worldwide data "smog," continuous news "updates," and disguised argumentation, happening all at once on our computers and TV sets.


It's too late to turn back the tide of the information deluge. The best we can hope to do is make some sense of what the state of constant information means, and what this "all-at-onceness" means for the idea of "news" as it evolves into the next century. The launching of the first communications satellites meant that suddenly people all over the world could see and hear about events as they were happening and form opinions based on that experience, rather than waiting for interpretation by newswriters and editors. Now, by accessing the World Wide Web with its hypertext linkages--specified words or phrases that can be used to call up related text or images--anyone can essentially create a unique and completely personal version of the news. (This assumes, of course, that he has the stamina to wade through the never-ending onslaught of information overload, compressed news cycles, Web reports that challenge traditional news sources, and news overlaid with split screens and simultaneous events. It assumes, too, a talent for extracting from the stream of 1s and 0s some kernel of information that qualities as "surprise.")
Left on the cutting-room floor will be many of the traditional news organizations that found themselves too analogue, too linear, too exhausted and distracted to keep up. But don't worry about the big news organizations; they will somehow find a way of surviving. Save your worry for the people. Will the people survive the end of the information age? Will the Republic?
An optimist may hope that the information age will yield to an age of knowledge, when surfers of fact will become seekers of truth.

      It could happen.

      Of course, a pessimist may fear that the Internet will devolve into the mindlessness of television, creating a citizenry that can't think or read, is unfit for jury duty, and can be entertained (just barely and only momentarily) but not enlightened.
The pessimist may continue to fear that all the world's intelligence will be embedded in machines and none in ordinary people; that those ordinary people will live out their lives in a new Dark Age, filled with dread and awe, worshiping the mysterious and incomprehensible machines that surround them, like magical trees in a primeval forest.
Which will it be? We'll have to wait to find out and hope for the best. Perhaps the pessimist is taking just one part of human nature--the "thinking" part--too seriously. The mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once said: "It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by copybooks and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them."

     And so maybe it will be okay if we surrender our thinking (or most of it) to machines.


     * * *


      University of Toronto communications theorist Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) became a dominant force in the 1960s and was hailed by Tom Wolfe as an intellectual peer of Newton, Darwin, Freud, Einstein, and Pavlov. It is because of McLuhan that we use the word MEDIA in its current sense and talk about the "global village."

Though his slogan "the medium is the message" mystified some and infuriated many, McLuhan never said that the message (i.e., the content) of a particular TV show or book has no importance. He merely wanted to point us in another direction. Look at this, he was saying, forget the message for a second and see what the medium itself is doing to us, to our very "nervous systems"; you can't watch thousands upon thousands of hours of television without becoming a changed person. McLuhan said that we are as unaware of the psychic and social effects of the new technology as a fish of the water it swims in. We remain blissfully ignorant of what the media do to us.
And just how do the media affect us (or "massage" us, as he liked to say, punning on the word MESSAGE)? They do it by altering the balance of our senses. Prehistoric, or tribal, man existed in a harmonious balance of all five senses, but two great inventions--first the phonetic alphabet and later the movable-type printing press--upset that balance by rewarding a single sense, sight, as the eye chased across a page in a linear hunt for the end of a sentence. The inventions had an unfortunate side effect. Because they rewarded "linear thinking," man effectively lost his senses--and became fragmented, individualistic, specialized, and detached.
But then came the electric media (telegraph, radio, films, telephone, computer, and television). What then? Well, the "Gutenberg galaxy" (as McLuhan dubbed it) yielded to the information age (another McLuhanism), with its various competing media.
Possessing a Cambridge Ph.D. in English and a scholar's love of literature, this icon of the twentieth century described himself as a person who had "nothing but distaste for the process of change" and who personally preferred a stable environment "of modest services and human scale." How did a dedicated humanist come to lead an intellectual revolution? With both humility and irony, McLuhan explained simply: "I ceased being a moralist and became a student."
As a student of media, he "probed" (another of his favorite words) into every field, with what he proudly proclaimed as "no fixed point of view." He defined media broadly to include "any technology whatever that creates extensions of the human body and senses, from clothing to the computer." What he foresaw was a "retribalizing" of mankind as it allows modern multimedia to restore the balance of the senses that was destroyed by the rise of literacy.
One manifestation of this retribalization will take place in politics, and McLuhan predicted that "the day of political democracy as we know it today is finished." Here is just one example why:
"The people wouldn't have cared if John Kennedy lied to them on TV, but they couldn't stomachs LBJ even when he told the truth. The credibility gap was really a communications gap. The political candidate who understands TV--whatever his party, goals or beliefs--can gain power unknown in history. How he uses that power is, of course, quite another question. But the basic thing to remember about the electric media is that they inexorably transform every sense ratio and thus recondition and restructure all our values and institutions. The overhauling of our traditional political system is only one manifestation of the retribalizing process wrought by the electric media, which is turning the planet into a global village."

     As the man said, the medium is the message.--John Gehl and Suzanne Douglas

     * * *

     John Gehl and Suzanne Douglas are editors and publishers of the print magazines EXEC and EDUCOM REVIEW and the Internet newsletters INNOVATION, EDUPAGE, and ENERGY NEWS DIGEST, which can be found at

     * * *


     Johannes Gutenberg struggled for more than 10 years to build his printing press by inventing movable metal type and integrating it with adaptations of the technologies of paper, oil-based ink, and the winepress. He then required about 5 years to typeset and print his Bible, completing it in about 1455.

     We can gain perspective on his invention's historical debt by examining the components that went into Gutenberg's printing press:

     - A punch and mold system. Gutenberg's singular contribution to printing was developing a system that allowed mass production of the movable type used to reproduce a page of text. These letters would be put together in a type tray, which was then used to print a page of text. If a letter broke, it could be replaced. When sufficient copies of one page had been printed, the type could be reused for the next page or book.

     - The screw-type press for wine or olive oil. This had been used for centuries throughout Europe and Asia. Gutenberg adapted it to printing.

     - Block-print technology. Marco Polo brought knowledge of block printing from Asia at the end of the thirteenth century. Gutenberg modified the block format to hold his movable type as it was used in a press.

     - Mass production papermaking techniques. Paper was brought from China to Italy in the twelfth century but was thought too flimsy for books. Gutenberg's press made it more feasible to use paper and spurred the development of better papers.

     - Oil-based inks. These had been around since the tenth century but were smeared on the vellum used to make books. Gutenberg improved the formulation, allowing the ink to stick to and spread smoothly across his metal type.--Daniel Munyon

     * * *


     In the two centuries before the fall of Rome, the book assumed the facing-page, bound-edge format that it still retains today. Subsequent, slow evolution of the page and book took place in the age of the manuscript, the era before printing, when texts were copied by hand.

     Neither Johannes Gutenberg's invention of the printing press over a span of more than 10 years in the 1440s and '50s nor the subsequent explosion in titles and copies of books changed the basic format.

     What did change was the way of handling the books. The slow process of hand-copying manuscripts in the manuscript age had assured that books were so relatively rare that a very limited book-handling profession could manage their distribution and organization.

     As the printing of multiple copies of books fed a growing wave of interest in reading, learning, and knowledge, however, the publishing profession emerged to address issues of supply and demand. Publishers brought together the known elements of writing, printing, and reading into the business of learning. Through time, the interaction of authors, publishers, and readers standardized the book around two basic sizes: reference, in a roughly 8.5 x 11 inch configuration, and entertainment, in a roughly 5.5 x 8.5 inch design.


     Printing and publishing played vital roles in political movements of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, even as the underlying technologies remained basically unchanged. Starting in the second half of the nineteenth century, however, mechanization began to transform the industry, just as electronics has transformed it anew in the latter half of the twentieth.

     In the nineteenth century, trains speeded book distribution and machines that bound covers to pages opened a printing bottleneck. Mechanization of printing presses increased their speed and print-run capabilities, even as development of wood-based paper provided an abundant source of fiber. Color printing improved with the proliferation of petrochemical inks.

     The period from 1920 to 1960 was probably the best of times for publishing and printing houses established after 1800. Producer costs were at their lowest, and books were still treasured commodities. Type printed on paper was the dominant source of information and a major source of entertainment, even as radio and, later, television developed.

     After 1960, the publishers' empire began to crumble. The first pillar to crack was the control of copyright. With the introduction of the photocopier, cheap, uncontrollable copying of sections from books began to erode the power of the publisher. At the same time, automated typewriters and the Variatyper publishing system reduced the costs of authoring and composition, just as mechanization had reduced the costs of printing and binding in previous decades.

     The computer revolution that began in earnest in the 1970s changed the publishing world forever. Computer communication systems, which would grow into the Internet, allowed information to be shared easily and at low cost, without the physical copying of originals; microcomputers, which would become today's high-powered personal computers, put the power of information creation and access on the desktop.

     In the 1980s, digital scanners, desktop publishing, and cheap laser printers gave everyone the ability to become a publisher. In the 1990s, the Internet has matured into a nearly cost-free method of limitless information-sharing and distribution of published works.

     At the end of the twentieth century, virtually all books and other publications in the industrialized world are electronically composed; digital access is widely available through the telephone line. The stage is set for delivering the contents of books as electronic signals and displaying them on a portable electronic reader.


     The electronic book has existed in science fiction since the 1940s. Those early visions were of a bulky, nonportable device that contained text in electronic form and displayed it on an attached reader. Today's vision is of replacing printed books with a portable electronic reader that stores the text, with the whole printed book distribution and sales network being replaced with electronic delivery over the phone line. The pot of gold represented by eliminating so many production and distribution costs using low-cost electronic technology has attracted many entrepreneurs and corporate moguls, who aim to introduce technology that to varying degrees challenges deeply ingrained reading habits.

     Studies of reading physiology indicate that consumers prefer the form of the traditional facing-page book. It is, after all, what we have been comfortable with for hundreds of years. As the electronic book industry develops, however, alternative approaches are vying for acceptance. They include the following:

     - The PC/laptop type of "reader," which has an installed base of approximately 40 million in the United States. Its problems include low resolution of the screen, inaccurate screen ratio for viewing, and a keyboard that keeps the user's eyes too far from the viewing surface to read without eyestrain.

     - The tablet book, which is a handheld, single display screen. These tend to have the lowest cost as an electronic reading medium but lack the familiarity and proven handling characteristics of two facing pages.

     - The audio book, which would capitalize on advances in speech recognition and text-to-speech synthesis to read aloud any electronic text with a highly accurate rendering of the human voice.

     - The two-page electronic book, which aims to mimic the traditional reading and learning experience as closely as possible.

     So how will people read in the twenty-first century, and who will sell them their reading material? People will read with their eyes, minds, and hands. They will read in the most comfortable posture possible. They will read from a device that does not compromise the quality of the page, portability of the paperback, or cost of the newspaper. And they will buy their reading material from publishers who have made a successful transition into the electronic book world.--Daniel Munyon

     * * *

     Daniel Munyon is the president and chief executive officer of Everybook Inc. in Middletown, Pennsylvania. Everybook holds patents on the two-page electronic book and will introduce its first product, an electronic book for the reference book market, in April.

     * * *


     - Before the invention of the moveable-type printing press, the fact that books had to be hand-copied assured that they were expensive and rare.

     - Printing empowered Luther, Calvin, and others who sought to reform the Roman Catholic Church, even as it also catalyzed the standardization of vernacular language and heightened nationalistic identity.

     - Through stimulating literacy and educational reform, printing was a primary instrument in the formation of an educated public that could participate in democratic political processes.

     - As the first mechanization of a complex craft, printing can be considered the original ancestor of the Industrial Revolution.

     - Electronic publishing continues the print tradition started by Gutenberg, while the multimedia, hypertext Internet goes beyond it.

     * * *


     James Burke and Robert Ornstein, THE AXEMAKER'S GIFT: A DOUBLE-EDGED HISTORY OF HUMAN CULTURE, Grosset/Putnam, New York, 1995.

     Marshall McLuhan, UNDERSTANDING MEDIA: THE EXTENSIONS OF MAN, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1964.

Accessed on 02/02/2007 from SIRS Researcher via SIRS Knowledge Source 

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