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'From Gutenberg to Google,' how human inquiry became a networked activity

Author Tom Wheeler chronicles how knowledge in the Western world was largely localized, artisanal, and intensely exclusionary until Johannes Gutenberg combined a suite of technological innovations to revolutionize the way books were made.

From Gutenberg to Google By Tom Wheeler Brookings Institution Press 300 pp.

When Johannes Gutenberg was born in the German city of Mainz around the turn of the 15th century, knowledge in the Western world was largely localized, artisanal, and intensely exclusionary. Books were expensive luxuries, the products of time-consuming specialized labor; each one was unique in both its beauty and its errors. And because of their relative scarcity, books were also considerably controllable: locking them in libraries and chaining them to lecterns turned their contents into private property. 

As Tom Wheeler, former FCC Chairman under President Obama and now a visiting fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, writes in his new book From Gutenberg to Google, all that began to change around 1450 when Gutenberg combined a suite of technological innovations to revolutionize the way books were made. “The Western world had never before seen the rapid production of hundreds of perfect-quality pages, each one identical to the others,” Wheeler writes. “It was a moment to be savored, a decade-long quest with a transformative result.” 

According to Wheeler, Gutenberg turned human inquiry into a networked activity, “breaking information into its component parts” and thereby creating what persists today as the “interface between information and technology.” In fast-paced and companionable prose, "From Gutenberg to Google" traces the evolution of that interface.

It’s a familiar story, but no less astounding for that fact. The Gutenberg revolution in cheap, clean movable type gave rise to a flood of books the likes of which the world had never seen before, including practical manuals on farming, animal husbandry, carpentry, and architecture, philosophical dissertations on the arts of war and peace, and, most explosively, Bibles, printed in both the Vulgate and soon in the vernacular, available to everybody from a local village canon to, as the Dutch humanist Erasmus put it, the plowboy in his field. 

Wheeler is therefore right to point out that the real character of this revolution was egalitarian, an observation likewise made by great innovators after Gutenberg. Alexander Graham Bell saw this clearly, writing in 1876, “I feel that I have at last found the solution of a great problem and the day is coming when telegraph wires will be laid on to the houses just like water and gas is, and friends will converse with each other without leaving home.” You hardly need to change the words at all to get something Bill Gates or Steve Jobs might go on to say more than a century later. Wheeler follows the modern era of his story from the early days of ARPANET (“the internet’s opening act”) to our current 2019 world of hyper-connectivity.

His treatment of the earliest days of this momentous change are interesting, but it’s probably inevitable that Wheeler’s book grows more complicated and fascinating the closer it gets to the digital era, with its incalculable multiplication of words. Wheeler sees this multiplication as a matter of categorical change, centering around a new thing: digital information. “Previous networks carried assets to be put to work,” he writes. “Today’s networks create new assets by the very act of carriage.” Every time readers access digital information, he stresses, they are also creating more digital information. 

This leads naturally to too-brief discussions of digital concerns like online security and developments like cryptocurrency-enabling blockchains, which Wheeler clearly considers pivotal. Blockchain "can do for internet transactions what the web did for the internet,” he writes, “bring a layer of simplicity and increased performance.” Blockchain enthusiasts would consider “increased performance” just about the year’s biggest understatement of the concept’s potential.

It’s not Wheeler’s only understatement. He writes, “We should not delude ourselves into believing that somehow we are experiencing the greatest technology-driven changes in history.... Viewed in context, the changes of the twenty-first century do not yet measure up to the effects of printing, steam power, and messages by sparks.” 

This is charming, admittedly, but preposterous. Gutenberg’s books couldn’t talk to each other, nor could they control the siege weapons of the Holy Roman Emperor. The digital transformation of the 21st century reaches into every aspect, digital or otherwise, of virtually every life on the planet. Digital devices watch and listen to their owners 24 hours a day and shape their responses accordingly. Johannes Gutenberg would not have seen any of this as an evolution of his printing press, but even so, he would have recognized it: this is how people in the 15th century imagined God. Comparisons with the printing press fall a little short. 

As Wheeler points out, the challenges these innovations represent will help define the modern era. “Just as we judge previous generations by how they handled their period of change,” he writes, “so shall we be judged.” We’ll all have to hope it isn’t algorithms doing the judging.

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