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Scholar at Large

The Gutenberg Moment


In 1450, there were a hundred thousand manuscripts in European libraries, illumined in startling colors by monks and scholars who sat quietly embellishing the knowledge handed down through the ages. Most were written in Latin, Greek, or Hebrew. Barely a handful of Europeans had access to these languages.

By 1500, there were nine million books. On October 31, 1517, a short-tempered German Augustinian monk named Martin Luther nailed up a handwritten Latin document listing ninety-five complaints against his own Roman Catholic Church. Under normal circumstances it would have remained on the door of the University of Wittenberg cathedral church for a few days until it fell down and disappeared. But someone took it down, translated it into German, and had it printed. It circulated like a whirlwind all over Europe. Within a decade the Protestant Reformation had begun, and within a century Europe would see an explosion of learning, knowledge, art, and invention unprecedented in world history. The Catholic Church reacted swiftly with a Counter-Reformation led by Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit movement, and in 1548 his Spiritual Exercises were printed for the first time and placed in general circulation. By 1618, Europe was ready to decide by force of arms which form of Christianity would triumph. The Thirty Years War produced bloodshed and slaughter new to the annals of civilization.

One technology did it all: movable type. The Chinese might have gotten there first, but a German goldsmith named Johannes Gutenberg (1398–1468) perfected the application of the printing press. He was an entrepreneurial businessman who experienced many ups and downs, but in the end he reshaped modern civilization by placing books in people’s hands: the age of personal technology had begun.

Among the great beneficiaries were the European vernacular languages used by the masses, who now needed standards of grammar, syntax, and spelling to organize this newfound literacy. Martin Luther was responsible for creating out of a dozen impenetrable dialects a common German language that could be read from Bremen to Munich; Spenser and Shakespeare shaped an English speech accessible to all classes. The King James Bible revealed God in the glory of the English language, and the printing press unlocked this enormous gift and gave it to the people.

Is there a modern “Gutenberg Moment” from which we can date the second enormous technological and communications revolution—the one that has shaken the world in the past fifty years? We could plausibly point to July 1961, by which time primitive electronic computers had advanced sufficiently for Leonard Kleinrock, a graduate student at MIT, to write a thesis proposal titled “Information Flow in Large Communication Nets.” Or fast forward to October 29, 1969, when this same Kleinrock, then teaching at UCLA, had a student send the first message over a primitive system called the ARPANET (later renamed the Internet). But we can’t overlook Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, or the creators of an endless array of personal devices and their enabling software. No, unlike the first Gutenberg, there were many godfathers at the creation of our new information civilization. Together, their inventions do, on an infinitely larger scale, what the primitive printing press did: place information in the hands of the people.

Without this technological explosion, the Arab Spring would have been inconceivable. Totalitarian governments will face a citizenry so committed to social networking and personal communication that efforts to control them will be virtually impossible. That won’t prevent the oppressors from using every technology at their command to hold down their citizenry.

Is there anything to fear from this second communications revolution? Certainly. Gutenberg’s press set off religious conflicts that produced a century of horror and human misery. It also launched the first great wave of pornography. The second wave of pornography, available now to an extent previously unimaginable, can be found everywhere on the Internet. In addition, today’s increasingly smart personal devices have been used to explode bombs, kill people, and link terrorists. Personal privacy? Individuals have seen their most intimate concerns and embarrassing episodes go viral on YouTube or Twitter.

And what could happen to language? The printing press empowered hundreds of millions of readers, gave them access to the world’s literature, and advanced literacy and imaginative language. So far, text messaging hasn’t done much for the art of writing. “2MORO” has replaced “tomorrow” and “BU&M” is the accepted shortcut for “between you and me.” At least these forms haven’t found their way into term papers . . . yet.

Is there any limit to where this current technological revolution will take our civilization? IDK. GTG.

In his forty-seven years at Tufts, SOL GITTLEMAN has been a professor of German, Judaic studies, and biblical literature and is a former provost of the university. He now serves as the Alice and Nathan Gantcher University Professor.

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