In his latest book, The Gutenberg Parenthesis, City University of New York journalism professor Jeff Jarvis places us today outside the era of print and beyond the world that print created.
In 1454, Johannes Gutenberg printed the Bible using movable type in Mainz, Germany. A publishing industry of booksellers and printers eventually emerged across Europe, then later, throughout the world. Those “Gutenberg” books, produced and sold by authors and publishers, engendered a culture of printed communication that endured for centuries—until a few decades ago.
As transmission of knowledge and creativity continues to shift off the page and onto the screen, Jarvis proposes we celebrate rather than mourn the death of print. “The story of print is indeed the story of power and who held the power to speak and who didn’t,” he told me in a recent interview for the CCC podcast series, Velocity of Content. “There are so many people who were not included and not represented and not served in old, mainstream mass media. Twitter and Black Twitter and Facebook and TikTok and communities and collaboration enable voices that were always there, but for too long were not heard. That is something I celebrate.”
Beginning of the book
Tom Pettitt, Lars Ole Sauerberg, and Marianne Børch, all at the University of Southern Denmark, first described the “Gutenberg Parenthesis,” according to Jarvis. “They pointed out that before Gutenberg, our culture was very conversational. Information was passed around mouth to mouth. It was changed along the way. Come Gutenberg, things get set in stone, or at least in lead, and they are contained within a book.”
In the timeline of global human civilization, the “Gutenberg Parenthesis” is the five and a half centuries when printed works, especially books, silently conveyed developments in science, arts, and politics to equally silent readers. “If we start the clock for Western print culture at about 1454, when Gutenberg’s Bible was coming off the press, it was another half-century until the book as we know it took on the form we know today, with page numbers and paragraph indentation and titles and title pages,” Jarvis explained.
“It was not until about 1605, another century, before we saw the invention of the newspaper. And around that time also, importantly, the invention of the modern novel, with Cervantes; the invention of the essay with Montaigne; the creation of a market for printed plays with Shakespeare.”
Beginning of the internet
“I mark the beginning of the popular internet with the commercial browser in 1994—which is to say, that we are about a quarter-century away from the beginning of the internet, and that would put us about 1480 in Gutenberg years. Now, history doesn’t repeat itself. Nothing’s deterministic here. But I do think that we are still seeing the future in the analogue of the past. We still see magazines and newspapers that are recognizable in their form online. I don’t think we’ve seen the kind of innovation and invention that came along with Cervantes and Montaigne. So I think we have time, and that means we have the responsibility to make wise decisions going forward.”
Mass media—essentially, print media—notoriously abhorred individuality and diversity. In the new, post-Gutenberg communication environment, Jarvis said, everyone has a voice. “We’re trying to understand this cacophony that is democracy. And it’s not easy at first. Certain people have a nostalgia for the [mass media] era, for that belief that we had a shared national viewpoint, which we never did. I despise the idea of the mass, because it is a way to not listen to people and not understand them as communities and individuals.”
A frequent criticism of online media is that a fracturing of information sources creates filter bubbles and echo chambers. Research is mounting, however, to contradicts this assumption. “What the internet does is puncture that bubble,” Jarvis said. “We come to a place where we are exposed to people who we’re unfamiliar with, who are strangers, who may be scary or being made scary by certain forces, and we don’t know how to deal with that.”
What lies outside the Gutenberg Parenthesis, however, is room to make new friends and allies, according to Jarvis. “My fondest hope for both the internet and its companies and its entities, but also for good old media, is that we find the means to make strangers less strange. I think that’s the most pressing job we have in our society today.”
Christopher Kenneally is host of Velocity of Content, CCC’s podcast series.