Tom Ross: Gutenberg would fit in Silicon Valley
July 9, 2012
Steamboat Springs — Have you ever stopped to ponder what Gutenberg would have thought of e-readers like the Nook, Kindle and iPad?
I think it's a safe bet that the high-tech entrepreneur who invented the printing press 470 years ago would be dumbfounded if I could lend him my Kindle Touch today. As soon as he recovered his poise, Gutenberg probably would have tried to take my Kindle apart to find out how its maker stuffed all of those tiny pieces of movable metal type into such a slim little box.
I spent part of the weekend contemplating Gutenberg's role in launching modern mass media after reading a Kindle Single — call it an essay — "Gutenberg the Geek" by Jeff Jarvis, director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at City University of New York.
Jarvis calls Gutenberg the world's first technology entrepreneur and observes that the parallels between the struggle he went through to perfect the technology of printing and the travails of Silicon Valley startups today are remarkable.
Like Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Gutenberg struggled to raise capital and build a team. And he had a hard time monetizing his books at first, which led to him losing his company to a shrewd investor.
Johannes Gutenberg virtually invented mass communication in 1540. You probably already know that by adapting presses originally meant for other purposes and devising a way to manufacture large numbers of individual metal letters, Gutenberg moved books into the era of mass production. Bibles that previously were painstakingly hand-lettered by scribes could suddenly be printed in large numbers.
Ultimately, it was the way Gutenberg's printing press transformed society that mattered most. Luther's religious reformation that took hold in Germany was dependent on his ability to publish his manifestos for mass consumption.
In the same vein, Jarvis writes, the printing press helped enable the rise of modern science, created new professions and even changed the way we retain knowledge.
We believe that the current explosion of information technology is transforming our world at a rate that is difficult to assimilate. But Jarvis cites scholars who believe it took 50 years before the full effect of Gutenberg's press and the era of mass production of books took hold on society.
From that, we can conclude that the revolution has just begun and the changes we are trying to come to terms with in the early part of this decade will only accelerate in the next few decades.
You can purchase Google ebooks through Off the Beaten Path Bookstore's website, and you can get assistance in downloading and borrowing library books for free at Bud Werner Memorial Library. You also can use the Nook at Barnes & Noble or the Kindle at Amazon.
Next up? I want to read Jarvis' full-length book, "Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live."
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com