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From Gutenberg's Printing Press to the Internet and eBooks: Considerations on the Information Age

Updated on February 16, 2013

Page from the Gutenberg Bible

The modern literary system is the way that books have been manufactured, and by extension, the way that text has been mediated, since the advent of Gutenberg’s printing press which drastically increased public access to print materials and therefore marks a significant difference in literary era from the far less efficient means of book production that preceded it, and the far more efficient means of information transmission that followed it, the internet.

The scale and degree of production, and especially the technology behind it, has undergone significant transformation since moveable printed type revolutionized and exploded the manufacture of printed reading material, but the basic nature of the literary system has stabilized and remained very much the same since the print revolution. The universal aspect of the modern literary system through time has been the increasing accessibility of books through material and method, and by extension, economic efficiency in manufacturing from the consumer’s perspective, and greater access to publishing opportunities from the author’s perspective.

Johannes Gutenberg; drawn after his death.
Johannes Gutenberg; drawn after his death.

As an admittedly gross oversimplification, but a fair enough way to make my point, we can consider the advent of written language itself a literary revolution that eventually stabilized and became subsumed into human civilization (not without deeply influencing it, of course), and then within the realm of written language, we have the print revolution whose ramifications are similar to those of the invention of the internet and the mass distribution of access thereto, which has become its own literary system in a sense, but in some ways is also “predicated on certain intrinsic properties of the mode of literary production, most notably its spatiality and objectification.” If we consider the printed book to be the mode of literary production, we can then see how its spatiality and objectification re-emerge in the internet in the form of web-pages which follow the paradigm of the pages of a book, but with superficial transformation in the sense that new audio-visual possibilities are introduced with this new medium. On a less tangible level, the revolution of information distribution, reproduction, and access that the printing press introduced is re-revolutionized with the much faster and more wide-reaching potential of the internet.

 "the transition from painstakingly hand-scribed books to the far more efficient system of book production that Gutenberg ushered in with his printing press"
"the transition from painstakingly hand-scribed books to the far more efficient system of book production that Gutenberg ushered in with his printing press"

For anything to be predicated on something means that much of something that came before a future form of itself re-emerges, albeit after varying degrees of transformation, in that future form. To make this more concrete with a relevant example, let me return to the transition from painstakingly hand-scribed books to the far more efficient system of book production that Gutenberg ushered in with his printing press. Not only were printed books essentially the same in structure and function as their hand scribed forebears, but early typefaces were designed to look as though they had been written by hand, even though simpler fonts would have been easier to manufacture and read. Contemporary books are still constructed in very much the same way and even modern eReaders, which for no practical purpose mimic the spatial properties of a book to create the illusion or effect of interacting with that object, are predicated on the intrinsic properties of books. For example, some eReaders include an animation that makes it seem as though the reader is turning a page in a print book when this really serves no function other than to more accurately fit the machine into the paradigms set by the long tradition of the book’s manufacturing evolution and history.

For a property to be intrinsic to something, it has to be inseparable to a certain degree. To be intrinsic suggests that the property is not only intimately connected with something, but that it also, at least partially, originates from the thing. This is the real essence of Nunberg’s statement, the idea that despite the flexibility of its evolution and historical transformation, the literary system still holds to certain traditional paradigms as far as the material books themselves are concerned.


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