OFTEN these days, we hear that the shift from the analog world of print to the online and digital world resembles what happened when Gutenberg’s printing press reshaped Renaissance Europe, crushing Catholicism, spreading literacy and perhaps democracy, and overturning old ways. People who frame our current transition this way often do it as a way of arguing for the “liberating” powers of the Web.
I want to go back to Michael Harris’s The End of Absence, which I’m reading now. Harris refers to the Victor Hugo novel Notre-Dame de Paris, in which a 15th century archdeacon picks up a printed book for the first time, looks from it to Notre Dame and says, “Cecil tuera cela” — this (book) will kill that (cathedral). Of course, the printing press helped marginalize Catholicism in northern Europe, and had an enormous impact everywhere print traveled.
But the pace of change is very different. Here’s another bit from Sara Scribner’s Salon Q+A with Harris.
You talk a lot about this being our Gutenberg moment, and that we’ve had big, sweeping technological changes before when the printing press came in, and this is just one of them. And people say, “Don’t panic.” This is just another transition period. But how is this rapid technological transformation different than others?
It’s different, because this is a moment and not a slowly booming era. In Gutenberg’s day, in 1450, the printing press comes out, but most people aren’t actually literate until the 19th century. So you actually have hundreds of years of slow change. It takes centuries before the printing press’s real power is unveiled. Whereas the amount of massive change happening today takes place in a single generation. So instead of a Gutenberg era or a Gutenberg shift, we have this Gutenberg moment, is what I called it in the book. And in a way, that’s frightening, but in another way, it’s actually hopeful, because it means you actually have people living on both sides of the moment at the same time. So I think anybody born before 1985 can remember being an adult in a pre-Internet world. So we have this great chance to actually talk with people who are younger about the world that was before. It doesn’t mean that that world was better than their world. In a lot of ways, digital natives may have an exciting, fantastic new experience that we can’t, that older people can’t comprehend. But the exciting thing for me is the fact that we could actually have a conversation between those two generations and that we had such massively different experiences.
Others, such as Neil Postman and Sven Birkerts have written well on the subject, and Harris stands proudly in their tradition of humanistic skepticism.