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The iPad: What is a Gutenberg moment, Anyway?

Dennis Baron is Professor of English and Linguistics at the better pencilUniversity of Illinois. His book, A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution, looks at the evolution of communication technology, from pencils to pixels. In this post, also posted on Baron’s personal blog The Web of Language, he looks at “Gutenberg moments”.  Read his previous posts here.

For months, commentators have been referring to the release of Apple’s iPad — it finally went on sale on April 3 — as a “Gutenberg moment,” or insisting, if they don’t like the idea of the iPad, that it has no hope of being a Gutenberg moment. In either case they’re comparing the new tablet device, which most of them hadn’t even seen, to Johannes Gutenberg’s rollout of the first printing press in the 1450s. To be fair, these commentators never saw Gutenberg’s press either, or any kind of printing press at all.

A Gutenberg moment is one which changes the way we produce and consume text as dramatically as Gutenberg’s machine did. Before Gutenberg rigged a wine press so that it could press a sheet of paper against inked, movable, cast-metal type, scribes laboriously copied books by hand, leaf by leaf, volume by volume, a process that was so slow and so expensive that only the filthy rich could afford books. Gutenberg’s press enabled the mass production of books, whose lower unit cost democratized book ownership: anybody could buy a book, or at least borrow one from the library. Another thing about the Gutenberg moment: scribes were notorious for introducing errors into the books they copied, but the press allowed books to be cloned ad infinitum. After Gutenberg, there’s perfect copy, every time.

If you believe the printing press did all that, then there’s a bridge in Brooklyn you might want to buy, or maybe I could interest you in some priced-to-sell subprime mortgage instruments? It’s fine to characterize a Gutenberg moment as a revolution in text delivery, but only if you acknowledge that it actually took not a moment, but several hundred years, for the real effects of printing to take hold.

Like hand-copying, Gutenberg’s press was a slow, labor-intensive process that involved typesetting, printing one page at a time, drying inked pages, correcting them, adding the many illustrations to each page by hand, breaking down the type, typesetting the next page, and so on, not to mention sewing the printed sheets together into fascicles, and binding the completed volume between covers. Because paper was expensive, sheets with errors in them were not discarded but were bound into finished books. Each copy of a book contained pages in various stages of correction, and as with manuscript copies, there were no clones: each of the 200 or so surviving copies of Shakespeare’s 1623 First Folio, about half the original print run, is a little different from the others, as is each of the surviving Gutenberg bibles.

A scriptorium might be slow, but fifteenth-century print shops were also slow, producing tens of copies of a book, or, for a high-demand title, hundreds of copies, though that would take time. According to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, which owns one of five complete Gutenberg bibles in the United States, it took up to five years for Gutenberg’s shop, which may have used more than one press, to crank out 180 copies of the first printed book, at a per-copy cost so high that they were acquired not by individuals but by the wealthiest churches and monasteries.

Mass produced, highly-affordable text had to wait until the invention of the steam press in the 19th century, but even then, most writing — business documents, personal letters, and all the words that would wind up printed in books, magazines, and newspapers — continued to be drafted by hand. It wasn’t until the invention of the typewriter in the 1870s that keyboarded text would begin to edge out handwriting as the principal method of putting words on paper.

The personal computer was closer to a Gutenberg moment than the printing press ever was. The PC was conceived as a number cruncher, not a word processor. It’s initial text capabilities were clunky, if not profoundly discouraging. Yet in only a couple of decades the PC revolutionized the production and distribution of the written word. Even so, digital text, which may be cheap, isn’t all that democratic: plenty of the world’s have-nots find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide, being left farther and farther behind as the rest of us — those who are reading this blog post, for example — come increasingly to depend on the words in cyberspace.

And while a computer’s “copy” command can produce cloned text more effectively than any press or scribe, online text represents perhaps the most unstable text in the history of writing: words on the web morph regularly, subtly, and without warning. The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said you can’t put your foot in the same river twice, because that river is constantly changing. Were he alive today, he’d probably insist that in the digital age, you can’t read the same text twice, because it, too, is ever in flux.

So, will the iPad be the next Gutenberg moment? No one really knows yet what the iPad can do. At this writing, it’s only three days old, far too early to predict its future reliably. The iPad’s promise depends to a great extent on the apps that become available, and even more on how iPad owners decide to use their machines. Initial reviews hail the iPad as an entertainment device, great for reading the paper or a book, playing a game, surfing the web, watching a video, maybe doing a little email. It’s not a creative tool, and all the reviewers warn iPad owners not to give up their laptops, at least not yet.

Some critics are also alarmed that users can’t program their own iPads, that Apple must approve all iPad software. But most writers aren’t interested in reprogramming their computers any more than they’re interested in making their own pens or pencils or typewriters or presses. They’re happy to let people like Gutenberg and Steve Jobs do that for them. What writers want is a better way to create and distribute their texts. There’s nothing to prevent the iPad from becoming the next printing press, or at least the next iteration of the personal computer. Maybe this is not a Gutenberg moment, however one chooses to define that elusive phrase, but the iPad has the potential to outstrip the laptop as an effective writing tool. All that will take is some software and hardware tweaks, and some determined users intrigued enough with the machine’s potential for text production to make it so.

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