The impact of the printing press



Opinion Columnist Kevin Wiggins explains the evolution of information communication started by the Gutenberg Printing Press.


We often don’t even think of the technology that we use in our day-to-day lives, even of the human heroes whose genius created it. I ride my bike to class without even thinking of the human ingenuity that created a system of gears, inflatable tubing and the metallurgy went into creating a vehicle that only weighs 17 pounds. Or even that from my phone, I have access to more of the accumulated body of human knowledge than any person who came before me. Not only has the Internet changed us, but it has changed the very ways in which we encounter human learning. Podcasts present a revolution in human encountering of information in a way that Johannes Gutenberg couldn’t have even fathomed.

A crew of wealthy, educated (what would later be called “bourgeois”) Italian and Greek refugees in the mid-1400s began the process of what would become the Renaissance. As the Roman Empire crumbled in the wake of the Ottoman Caliphate, Greek scholars such as Gemisthos Plethon, John Agyroupolos and Demetrios Chalkokondyles fled west to Italy. The vast majority of these refugees ended up in the Republic of Venice, the city provided shelter to them and there was even a lively community which was highly visible until as late as 1806.

These men carried with them a number of manuscripts of ancient Greek texts that had been lost in the West. This happened to occur just as a German man finished what would change the horizons of civilization and truly what would prove the greatest challenge to statists, the written word. Johannes Gutenberg finished his first press in 1439. By 1500, there were dozens of presses active across Europe, but the technology was slow to be adopted. Many, the Church included, were wary of what such easy access to information could do or inspire. For the Humanists, however, nothing could have been more of a godsend.

The first Greek press was created in Venice by Anna Notaras, a noted benefactor of letters, and the granddaughter of the last Megas Dux of the Roman Empire, Loukas Notaras. In a few short decades, the inheritance of the Western world from antiquity spread across Europe like wildfire. Now, this sketch I’ve painted here is, of course, one-dimensional. It isn’t my claim that this is precisely how the access to printed books was born. Rather, it goes to show what a concentrated and highly innovational invention can do for a community. The Venetian Greek community’s access to the printed word in their native tongue and the ability to print their own literature was a central aspect of their survival as a community.

This empowering and utterly precious phenomenon is at work in our times. The Internet itself is a sort of Gutenberg revolution. Having access to all of humanities knowledge in our pockets is one thing, but how information is even consumed is breathtaking. First, we had papyrus scrolls, then the codex, then the printed book, but now, podcasts are changing the very way in which we interact with knowledge. Reading, until as late as the 1800s, was an audio-visual happening. One would read aloud to themselves. This hangover from times past was the basic structure in which a text was encountered and it was a dedicated stationary affair. Now, with podcasts, audiobooks and their ilk, a human work can be encountered on the go and in our found time.

Someone such as Joe Rogan, who conducts 2-3 hours long interviews, can have contact with people across the globe. The average episode of “The Joe Rogan Experience” is downloaded two million times and paired with hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube. Even more, institutions such as Yale, Oxford and Cambridge have begun to release their freshman courses as audio files. Johannes Gutenberg gave the world unfathomable access to information in the 1400s.

Today, not only access has been democratized in unfathomable ways, but the very way in which information is encountered has been changed forever. We are living through the greater revolution in human learning than ever before, and we should be in awe of that fact.