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February 28 2012

18:09

Gutenberg the Geek: A Kindle Single

I’ve just published Gutenberg the Geek, arguing that the inventor of printing was our first geek, the original technology entrepreneur. I find wonderful parallels in the challenges and opportunities he faced and those that face Silicon Valley (or entrepreneurial journalism) startups today. So I retell his story from an entrepreneurial perspective, examining how he overcame technology hurdles, how he operated with the secrecy of a Steve Jobs but then shifted to openness, how he raised capital and mitigated risk, and how, in the end, his cash flow and equity structure did him in. This is also the inspiring story of a great disruptor. That is why I say Gutenberg is the patron saint of entrepreneurs.

The Kindle Single came out of my obsession with Gutenberg that developed while I researched Public Parts. I also wanted to learn how Kindle Singles work (more on that later) -… and prove that I have nothing against charging for content! But I’m not charging much, only 99 cents (free in the Amazon lending library).

Tomorrow, I’ll link to an excerpt from the piece. I’d be honored if you bought the piece and said what you think here or at the Amazon page.

January 21 2012

16:08

Where Gutenberg worked

I took a detour on a trip to Europe so I could visit Mainz and the Gutenberg Museum, having become obsessed with the great man and his magnificent disruption as both an inventor and an entrepreneur.

It was awe-inspiring to stand before the first known page of his printing (a snippet from the Sibylline prophesy, found in the binding of another book). It’s not beautiful; betas rarely are. But next to it is the culmination of Gutenberg’s art in three of his his Bibles, his masterpieces.

Another case captured my imagination. In it were the indulgences the Catholic Church could make and sell at scale, thanks to printing. Next to them were three of Martin Luther’s pamphlets, which he could also print at scale and it is that scale that enabled him to so disrupt the Church.

Also in that case were political broadsides printed by Gutenberg’s successors–his funder, Johann Fust, who called the startup’s debt and took over the business–in a battle between two bishops in Mainz. I write in Public Parts:

The press quickly made an impact on the political structure of society. According to Albert Kapr’s definitive biography, Johann Gutenberg: The Man and his Invention, among the earliest nonreligious publications produced in the great man’s shop by his successors—Johann Fust and his son-in-law Peter Schöffer—were political pamphlets. A series of broadsides from each side of a church fight to control the city of Mainz were published on the same presses in 1461, demonstrating from the start that this tool of publicness, like most to follow, was neutral and agnostic. “All these pamphlets were aimed at gaining public support for the respective protagonists and defaming their opponents,” Kapr writes. “To the matériel of warfare—halberds, rapiers, swords, harquebuses and cannon—psychological weapons had been added, which could be delivered by means of the printing press.” Here we see publishing’s nascent role in the birth of media, propaganda and the public sphere they would influence.

On another floor was an exhibit about newspapers and their predecessors, including small publications called posts. Pardon my blog-centric view of that, but I quite like that on blogs, we also have posts. I was struck by the continuum of media on display there and the reminder that neither print nor newspapers were forever; they were each invented. Each may be replaced. Soon, I’ll post a piece I’ve been working on about Gutenberg as probably the first technology entrepreneur. In it, I note that printing by impressing ink on paper may be seeing its twilight, replaced by ink-jet technologies just as photography on paper has been replaced by digital.

Mind you, books and printing will not disappear. After my visit to the museum, I had the great privilege of having lunch with Bertram Schmidt-Friderichs, thanks to a connection made via Twitter by his wife and partner, Karin Schmidt-Friderichs. They run a wonderful small press, Verlag Hermann Schmidt Mainz, publishing and printing beautiful small books about art and typography. Where better in the world to do that? Bertram said that books will continue but as special, premium products. I agree. In that, they recapture Gutenberg’s original vision of print as beauty.

At the museum, I was lucky to be around as a TV crew was filming a demonstration of the technologies in Gutenberg’s pressroom. The press already existed for olives, grapes, and paper; Gutenberg had to adapt it for printing. Ink already existed, of course, but Gutenberg had to adapt that, too, to his needs. But his critical and unsung invention was the hand-held mold that enabled Gutenberg to make fonts–thousands of letters needed for the Bible–quickly and consistently. It required ingenious design and no small expertise in metallurgy and I was delighted to finally see one in action, below.

IMG_1220

November 21 2010

16:25

Who says our way is the right way?

As I sit on the board of Reading for the Blind & Dyslexic, I have been thinking about the different ways people learn. RFB&D gives students the tools to learn by listening. We call that a disability. I think it may soon be seen as an advantage.

A group of Danish academic say we are passing through the other side of what they wonderfully call the Gutenberg Parenthesis, leaving the structured, serial, permanent, authored, controlled era of text and returning, perhaps, to what came before the press: a time when communication and content cross, when process dominates product, when knowledge is distributed by people passing it around, when we remix it along the way, when we are more oral and aural.

That’s what makes me think that RFB&D’s clients may end up with a leg up. They understand better than the textually oriented among us how to learn through hearing. Rather than being seen as the people who need extra help, perhaps they will be in the position to give the rest of us help.

And I thought that as I read Matt Richtel’s piece in the New York Times today: Growing up digital, wired for distraction. It starts off lamenting that a student got only 43 pages through Cat’s Cradle. But as @HowardOwens responded on Twitter: “Gee, a 17-year-old only gets 43 pages into his summer reading assignment. Like, that’s never happened before.”

Richtel and the experts he calls blame technology, of course, for shortening our attention spans, just as Nick Carr and Andrew Keen do, lamenting the change. But the assumption they all make is that the way we used to do it is the right way. What if, as I said in Short Attention Span Theater (aka Twitter), we’re evolving:

“Maybe the issue isn’t that we’re too distracted to read but that reading can finally catch up with how our brains really work.”

Richtel, to his credit, focuses at the end of his piece on a distracted student who can, indeed, focus — not on the books he’s assigned but on the video he’s making. Maybe that’s because he’s creating. Maybe it’s because he’s working with tools that give him feedback. Maybe it’s because he is communicating with an audience.

I spend time on this in my book (when I can concentrate on writing it — that is, when I’m not blogging and tweeting as I am right now): Technology brings change; change brings fear and retrenchment. Gutenberg scholar Elizabeth Eisenstein reminds us that for 50 years after the invention of the press, we continued to put old wine in this new cask, replicating scribal fonts, content, and models. That’s what’s happening now: We are trying to fit our old world into the new one that is emerging. We’re assuming the old way is the right way.

Mind you, one of the joys of writing this book is that I’ve had cause to start reading books again. I’ll confess I’d fallen off the shelf.

Now I’m enjoying reading books as part of the process of creating, sharing, communicating. I’m learning not just by reading and absorbing but by rethinking and remixing. And I’m thinking the result of my next project may not be a book but something else, or that a book may be a byproduct rather than the goal.

So is this new generation distracted or advanced? How can they best learn? How can they teach? What tools can we use today besides books? What new opportunities do all their tools present? That’s what educators should be asking. That’s the discussion I’d like to see The Times start.

: @SivaVaid(hyanathan) just said on Twitter: “There are no wires in the human mind. So it can’t be ‘rewired’ Get a grip.” Right. What can be rewired are media and education and that’s what we’re seeing happen — or what we should be seeing happen.

October 16 2010

22:52

Books as makers of publics

Here’s my talk to the O’Reilly Tools of Change conference in Frankfurt before the Book Fair there, in which I argue that books are tools for making publics and now that we all have presses publishers must ask how they can play a role in helping us make publics — and how they can protect our tools of publicness.

I’m having trouble setting the width of the player, so go to the “more” link and you can watch the videos.

July 27 2010

18:00

Uneven depths: Why the printed page has always had room for scholarly brilliance and dirty jokes

[Matthew Battles is one of my favorite thinkers about how we read, consume, and learn. He's reading and reacting to Clay Shirky's Cognitive Surplus and Nicholas Carr's The Shallows. Over the next several weeks, we'll be running Matthew's ongoing twin review; here are parts one, two, three, four, five, and six. — Josh]

In a chapter called “The Deepening Page,” Nicholas Carr offers a swift and graceful account of the history of writing. He traces the rise of logic, coherence, and depth from magical formulae scratched on potsherds and wax tablets by the ancients, through the pious allusions of the middle ages to the graceful periodic sentences of the eighteenth century. Their prose represented not only a formal triumph, but a neural one as well. “To read a book was to practice an unnatural process of thought,” writes Carr, “one that demanded sustained, unbroken attention to a single, static object.”

The reading of a sequence of printed pages was valuable not just for the knowledge readers acquired from the author’s words but for the way those words set off intellectual vibrations within their own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the prolonged, undistracted reading of a book, people made their own associations, drew their own inferences and analogies, fostered their own ideas. They thought deeply as they read deeply.

To Carr, the story of manuscript, printing, and publishing is the rise of the “deep page,” with modern literature as the apotheosis of literacy. The process a grimy Gutenberg started in the mid fifteenth century culminates in Wallace Stevens, whose poem “The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm” glories in the deep page: “The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind / The access of perfection to the page.”

The trouble is, it didn’t feel this way to many people going through these changes at various times in the past. Not to the manuscript bookseller Vespasiano da Bisticci, who condemned the coarsening presence of printed volumes in libraries devoted to books in manuscript; not to Pope Paul IV, who started the Index of Prohibited Books during the so-called “incunable era” following the advent of moveable type; not to Pope Urban VIII, who tangled with Galileo; not to Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope; not to the French monarchy in advance of the Revolution.

The printing press never only produced the kind of deep reading we admire and privilege today. It also produced propaganda and misinformation, penny dreadfuls and comic books offensive to public morality, pornography, self-help books, and much that was generally despised and rejected by polite culture. Any account of the history of “The Gutenberg Era” that lacks these is incomplete — just as any picture of the Internet that privileges LOLcats and 4chan is insufficient. We must consider both — for pornography, misinformation, and sheer foolishness have thrived from the age of incunables to the advent of the Internet. And the deep-reading brain evolved in the midst of it all.

In his report about ROFLCon in last week’s New York Times Magazine, Rob Walker argues that open culture needs the slipshod, the shifty, and the shallow in order to maintain its health.

The more traditional pundits and gurus who talk about the Internet often seem to want to draw strict boundaries between old mass-media culture and the more egalitarian forms taking shape online — and between Internet life and life in the physical world…Sometimes the pointless-seeming jokes that spring from the Web seem to be calling a bluff and showing a truth: This is what egalitarian cultural production really looks like, this is what having unbounded spaces really entails, this is what anybody-can-be-famous means, this is how the hunger for “moar” gets sated, this is what’s burbling in the hive mind’s id. But the real point is that to pretend otherwise isn’t denying the Internet — it’s denying reality.

Walker references a talk the computer historian Jason Scott gave at the first ROFLCon in 2008 in which he discussed the shallow and seemingly antisocial memes spread by communications networks long before the Internet. Scott discusses electric media going back to the telegraph, but the printing press teemed with the shallow stuff well before the advent of telegraphy. Readers in the 18th century in particular were offered a tantalizing selection of bawdy images and tawdry tales. As the great book historian Robert Darnton has shown, the age of Voltaire and Rousseau was awash in erotica, dirty cartoons, and fancifully libelous tales of the rich and famous.

So where did the deep page come from? Not merely from ignoring the dross — for many alloys exist between poetry and pornography, and at any given moment, it’s never entirely clear which is which. Jonathan Swift, writing his “Battle of the Books” in 1704, didn’t even bother with the bawdy writers. Swift’s satire depicts a war between ancient and modern authors, with the ancients on the side of sweetness and light; it was Descartes and classicist Richard Bentley that drew his ire as much as any Grub Street hack. Swift and other early modern readers engaged in an encounter with a murky multiplicity of shifting possibilities in print. And it was the multiplicity that produced the deep page — presumably along with the brain circuitry underlying it.

At the edges of the deep page lie miles of shallow estuaries, stinking, muddy — and teeming with life. Our plastic brains have been navigating their effluents for a very long time.

June 29 2010

16:00

Reading isn’t just a monkish pursuit: Matthew Battles on “The Shallows”

[Matthew Battles is one of my favorite thinkers about how we read, consume, and learn. He's a former rare books librarian here at Harvard, author of Library: An Unquiet History, and one of the cofounders of HiLobrow.com, which Time just named one of the year's best blogs. He's reading and reacting to two alternate-universe summer blockbusters: Clay Shirky's Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age and Nicholas Carr's The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. (We've written about both.) Over the next several weeks, we'll be running Matthew's ongoing twinned review. —Josh]

Early in The Shallows, Nick Carr stirringly describes what he sees at stake in our time:

For the last five centuries, ever since Gutenberg’s printing press made book reading a popular pursuit, the linear, literary mind has been at the center of art, science, and society. As supple as it is subtle, it’s been the imaginative mind of the Renaissance, the rational mind of the Enlightenment, the inventive mind of the Industrial Revolution, even the subversive mind of Modernism. It may soon be yesterday’s mind.

It’s an inspiring image, this picture of the modern mind arrayed in the glories of progress and possibility.

It’s also wrong.

As readers of my site, library ad infinitum, likely know by now, I’m suspicious of any pronouncements that begin with Gutenberg. To say that the printing press was an agent of change, or that moveable type inaugurated a series of transformations in world culture, is reasonable, if very preliminary; but to treat the goldsmith from Mainz as modernity’s master builder simply is wrong: wrong on the biography, wrong on the facts, wrong from the perspective of a theory of history.

Biography

Gutenberg and his investors were trying to corner the market in Bibles—a market that already existed. Time made him its Person of the Millennium, but Gutenberg was no Leonardo, no Michelangelo, no Descartes. The fact that he wasn’t — that he was a man of no particular account in his own time — drives the subsequent story of his invention, moveable type, in interesting ways — ways too complex to boil down to the kind of simplistic formula Carr likes to proclaim.

Facts

Moveable type is not what made book reading a popular pursuit. That it played a role is not in doubt — although it may just as easily be said that the increasing popularity of book-reading spurred transformations in the technology, spurring inventors to find ways to increase the output of the press. But Gutenberg’s invention, however epochal it appears in retrospect, is rightly seen not as an origin point but as a station along the way — an important one, a real Penn Station or Kings Cross, with lots of branch lines and spurs sprouting from its many platforms — but a station nonetheless.

Theory of history

Here’s the most esoteric part, and the most vital. There is no unitary mind at work in history, neither a plan nor a Geist, no questing Spirit of Modernity or Truth or Righteousness. There’s a damaging irony at work in the model to which Carr seems to ascribe: for if the modern mind truly is the the direct descendant of Gutenberg’s invention, then so is the Internet. And like the host of cultural innovations that partook of the possibilities of the press — humanism, the Reformation, rationalism, the modern novel — critics fear its disruptive powers. In retrospect, we mistake those innovations for the charted course of history; to our counterparts in their respective eras, they looked like the Internet does to Carr: exciting but disruptive, soothing but dangerous, seductive but corrosive.

What is the four-sided Mind of which Nick Carr speaks — this imaginative, rational, inventive, subversive angel striding through the ages, showering the generations with its beneficence? Who is this promethean shapeshifter, whom we’re now in our churlishness binding to some rock for the crows to feast on its innards? What Carr is describing isn’t a historical reality — it’s a god. And it does not exist.

What troubles me most in the first chapter of The Shallows is the simplistic definition of reading Carr offers. It may seem strange to call it simplistic, as the epithets that characterize reading at its best for Carr all derive from the matrix of “complex,” subtle,” and “rich.” But he writes as if these are all that reading has been (ever since Gutenberg, anyway), as if the kind of reading he ascribes to the web — quick and fitful, easily distracted — is a new and disruptive spirit. But dipping and skimming have been modes available to readers for ages. Carr makes one kind of reading — literary reading, in a word — into the only kind that matters. But these and other modes of reading have long coexisted, feeding one another, needing one another. By setting them in conflict, Carr produces a false dichotomy, pitting the kind of reading many of us find richest and most rewarding (draped with laurels and robes as it is) against the quicksilver mode (which, we must admit, is vital and necessary).

In ecosystems like the Gulf of Mexico, the shallows are crucial. They’re the nurseries, where larval creatures feed and grow in relative safety, liminal zones where salt and sweet water mix, where light meets muck, where life learns to contend with extremes. The Internet, in this somewhat dubious metaphor, is no blowout — it’s a flourishing new zone in the ecosystem of reading and writing. And with the petrochemical horror in the Gulf growing daily, we’re learning that the shallows, too, need their champions.

April 07 2010

16:00

The Gutenberg Parenthesis: Thomas Pettitt on parallels between the pre-print era and our own Internet age

Could the most reliable futurist of the digital age be…Johannes Gutenberg?

Possibly. Or, definitely, if you subscribe to the theory of the Gutenberg Parenthesis: the idea that the post-Gutenberg era — the period from, roughly, the 15th century to the 20th, an age defined by textuality — was essentially an interruption in the broader arc of human communication. And that we are now, via the discursive architecture of the web, slowly returning to a state in which orality — conversation, gossip, the ephemeral — defines our media culture.

It’s a controversial idea, but a fascinating one. And one whose back-to-the-future sensibility (particularly now, with the introduction of the iPad and other Potential Game-Changers) seems increasingly relevant: When you’re living through a revolution, it’s helpful to know what you may be turning toward.

On hand to discuss the theory further, at an MIT-sponsored colloquium late last week, was Professor Thomas Pettitt of the University of Southern Denmark, who has focused academically on the Gutenberg Parenthesis and its implications. (More on his work, including links to papers he’s presented on the subject, here.)

At the talk, Professor Pettitt discussed, among other things, the implications of the book as an intellectual object — in particular, the idea that truth itself can be contained in text. For the Lab’s purposes, I wanted to hear more about the journalistic implications of that idea — and what it means for our media if we are, indeed, moving into a post-print age.

I spoke with Professor Pettitt and asked him about those implications — and about, in particular, the challenges to a notion of normative truth that they suggest. Here’s what he told me; a transcript of his thoughts is below.

There are things going on that are related changes. The big revolution with Gutenberg changed, or was related to big changes in other aspects — for example, the way we look at the world and the way we categorize things in the world. And if the same thing is happening now, and if we are reversing that revolution in these things as well, then this idea can predict the future. Because we are going forward to the past.

And with regard to things like truth, or the things like the reliability of what you hear in the media, then I think, well, in a way we’re in for a bad time. Because there was a hierarchy. In the parenthesis, people like to categorize — and that includes the things they read. So the idea clearly was that in books, you have the truth. Because it was solid, it looked straight, it looked like someone very clever or someone very intelligent had made this thing, this artifact. Words, printed words — in nice, straight columns, in beautifully bound volumes — you could rely on them. That was the idea.

And then paperback books weren’t quite as reliable, and newspapers and newssheets were even less reliable. And rumors you heard in the street were the least reliable of all. You knew where you were — or you thought you knew where you were. Because the truth was that those bound books were probably no more truthful than the rumors you heard on the street, quite likely.

I often tell my students that they should start their literature work, their work here, by tearing a book to pieces: Take a book, take some second-hand book, that looks impressive — and just rip it to pieces. And you can see that it’s just made, it’s just glued, it’s just stitched. And it’s not invulnerable. It’s just that someone’s made it. It doesn’t have to be true because it looks good.

And that’s what’s happening now. What’s happening now is there’s a breakdown in the categories. Yes. Informal messaging is starting to look like books. And books are being made more and more quickly. Some books seem to be like they are like bound photocopies. You can make a book — you can do desktop publishing. We can no longer assume that what’s in — we’re not distinguishing so much: ‘if it’s in a book, it’s right,’ ‘if it’s in writing, it’s less right,’ and ‘if it’s in speech, it’s less reliable.’ We don’t know where we are.

And I suppose the press, and journalism, and newspapers, will have to find their way. They will have to find some way of distinguishing themselves in this — it’s now a world of overlapping forms of communication. People will no longer assume that if it’s in a newspaper, it’s right. Newspapers are spreading urban legends, some of the time. Or at least now we know that they pass on urban legends. And the formal press will need somehow to find a new place in this chaos of communication where you can’t decide the level, the status, the value of the message by the form of the message. Print is no longer a guarantee of truth. And speech no longer undermines truth. And so newspapers, or the press, will need to find some other signals — it’s got to find a way though this.

And it might do well to take a look at rumors and, sort of, more primitive forms of the press in the 16th century and the 15th century. How did people themselves — when there were no books, how did people sort out the truth? How did they decide what they would rely on and what they wouldn’t rely on? It’ll be a — it’s a new world to find your way around. But that new world is in some ways an old world. It’s the world from before print, and the identifiable newspapers.

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