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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The History of Technology and Communication - Printing

In the middle of the 15th century, one Johannes Gutenberg changed the world. There's debate about whether he actually invented the printing press with movable type, but the reality is that he made it a staple in Europe. He started by printing a bible, but soon the press was employed in printing everything. The classics of Greece and Rome were able to be reproduced and sold at a much lower cost. The learning that had been lost to Europe for centuries, exploded across the continent and then the world.

Printing drastically lowered the cost of written works. Once a book had to be hand copied by a scribe, but all of a sudden it could be mass produced. The written word was no longer captive to the wealthy and powerful. It was given to anyone with the ability to read (which was still a minority in most of the world). The spread of ideas to more people brought the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Reformation and a host of other events that transformed history and culture around the world. The idea of democracy was made manifest in the reality of ideas being shared by everyone in common. Benjamin Franklin took the concept to the next level by proposing the public library so that all people could have access to the wealth of knowledge available in books.

Words became cheaper, more common and more influential with the rise of the printing press. The more eyes and ears that encountered the words, the more influence the words could have. But  the industry of publishing kept a hold on what could be printed. The bottleneck of the printer kept every person from being able to espouse their ideas to the world. Only those deemed worthy (or marketable) by the printer would be published. This led to a sort of trust in the printed word. The hurdles to having a work printed prevented false, misleading and subversive work from being publicly disseminated (in general, most of the time). So words printed in a book or newspaper were to be trusted. The Yellow Journalism of the 19th century manipulated whole countries due to the trust that was placed in the printed word.

It took the rise of electronic media in the 20th century to shatter that trust.

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