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A revolution: from Gutenberg to Google

11 November 2011

The invention of the movable type represents the beginning of the information revolution. Jairaj Salgaonkar of the Kalnirnay almanac traces the past which led to the evolution of knowledge on the internet.

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We the humans, called homo sapiens, have progressed from hunters and gatherers to a more civilian society. 50,000-60,000 years ago women used to gather food and wood, while men used to hunt for a living. It is a revolution by Gutenberg which led us to progress to a society of information.

The revolution further paved the way to a more modern and advanced society. It was instrumental in bringing about the Renaissance and it was this very revolution which triggered globalisation. Most importantly this was a bloodless revolution.

Gutenberg’s invention of moving types made it possible to preserve, reproduce and transport information in a printed form in the shape of a book. Transactions of different skills became possible through different languages. Humans could confront natural disasters in a better manner because they could exchange information – re-process it, enhance it and convert it into knowledge.

Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe explains this quite elaborately by calling it "The Gutenberg Revolution". It explains how until the revolution took place the spoken folk culture was preserved by memorising information. Gutenberg preserved it in a book form. Meanwhile folk knowledge got translated. The information could be medical knowledge, skills like carpentry etc. A blacksmith in Italy started knowing how German blacksmiths work. The owner of a Swedish foundry acquired skills from the owner of an English foundry. It happened in every field where knowledge could be exchanged in early modern Europe which eventually led to Renaissance. Then, two schools of thought such as Gothic and  Modern came close because of the art of printing.

The first printed book was The Holy Bible. It reached-out to a section of the people who started reading it at home. This enhanced the power of Church, initially. But when other branches of knowledge started reaching people they started asking questions. This eventually brought the Church under scrutiny. The Catholic printers and Protestant printers used to have sword-fights to prove one’s superiority. Printing the Bible was a very profitable business and the competition was very steep.

Eventually the Catholic Church mellowed down – and paved the way to scientific thinking and blending religious belief to modernity. The Church lost it’s supremacy to the extent that at the end of 18th century; and countries like Switzerland spurned Church worship totally.
The Gutenberg Revolution or the print culture of 500 years, as it is called now, changed the face of a society.

What the revolution did
Gutenberg’s invention introduced the Renaissance. The arts got a fresh lease of life. It changed literature, art, poetry, sculpture, painting, architecture by blending multiple cultures in different countries.

There was reformation (in religion) among Christian sects.  

Knowledge of science spread far and wide. From Socrates, Copernicus, Galileo, to Newton and Einstein, a chain of knowledge flow was created over the centuries. Initially these people were not accepted by the Church. Some of them  were killed, poisoned. Science was taboo.

That was then.

Today, Gutenberg’s revolution can be termed as "A new technology for transaction of information." This techonolgy combined the moving types with ink, paper and bindery to create books, magazines and newspapers.

It changed the prevailing patterns of continuity that’s why it called a revolution – a revolution that was beyond comprehension, that led to predictions of human society, that completely transformed the socio-economic and political pattern, say for instance a printed newspaper or printed currency or printed constitution of a country or printed revenue records and even stamp papers. These instruments changed the way governments conducted their business.

Free press gave birth to modern democracy, elections were conducted professionally. It brought a kind of standardisation that eventually led to globalisation. Skills got converted into factories that gave birth to an industrial revolution that brought the different classes of society together. Educated, enlightened workers (who were farm labourers before) stared demanding equality.

Furthermore, printing created currency. This boosted the financial services; and the banking, stock markets were modernised on the four pillars based on sound democratic thesis which was called The Constitution. Every religion had its standard book – every country had it’s constitution as a standard book. The news press became so powerful that it could change the rule of governments. Knowing this power of books and free press, dictators would burn books (or treat them with contempt) and censor the newspapers.

To create a world order which would eventually lead to glbalisation, a common English lanugauage became a world language and a set of nations was created called the English speaking nations.
Modernity and policy based civil society was born and Barbarian rule lost its authority. Political authority shifted forum monopolistic feudal authority to democratic assembly elected by people.

Factories started producing standard products from textiles to soaps were advertised in newspapers, generating demand for these products. Commodity products became brands – and mass media was responsible for this market shift. Metros started emerging. Democratic political system put the spotlight on the common citizen. At the same time multi-national corporates started working internationally and their parallel power lobby started influencing governments through the media.

This is what Gutenberg’s revolution did in 500 years. History records say that Socrates had to swallow poison since he was rejected by the powers that be; whereas Einstein was awarded a Nobel prize, the ultimate honour to be given at that time.

The arrival of Google
Gutenberg’s print culture created a progressive human society. I feel the next change happened with advent of the Internet – something similar to Gutenberg ‘s creation.

Like Gutenberg, the internet is a new media transaction of information and the "gate" to this transaction is a search engine called Google.

Larry Page and Sergey Green, post-graduate students of Stanford University, created the search engine. Currently there are 600 plus doctorates in IT work for Google for its endeavour to reach people with classified information. The strengths of Google are enormous:

  • Classified advertising for small products of utility which makes Google a self revenue generating company through advertising unlike any other internet companies.
  • Telecom – free availability of wi-fi and next generation wi-fi networks.
  • OS Operating System based on the net. Microsoft and  Apple are trying to confront this model.
  • Product development - Google is creating products like Toolbar. This is challenging Microsoft in a major way. Apple is playing a different tune.
  • Print – Mind you! Google wants to bring every single page printed till now to put up on its search engine available for free.
  • E-commerce through WalMart,  Paypal and Fedex.

Looking at all this, if Google plods on in the same way – every transaction, every book, every film, every newspaper, every mail, every tele-call, every advertisement, every magazine and every deal will happen with Google’s help!

Now imagine what took Gutenberg to achieve in 500 years with so-called primitive technology? And how fast Google is achieving it in the electronic age. Gutenberg’s revolution was backed by writers, scientists, publishers, printers, directors, playwrights – who played the role of catalyst. Who will play this role in case of Google – the people who use Google.

What could decide this? May be their average age, their taste for fiction, plays, music, their philosophy, their economics, their lifestyle, the books or gizmos they like, the music they listen to, the movies they like, the kind of sports they follow. The future they see and expect to unravel. This this will be explained (partially) by the manner in which blogs operate on Google.

The two revolutions
I talked about the print renaissance of Gutenberg and the e-renaissance of Google. Both have one common feature. Both are designed to lead common interest of human benefit and welfare although I feel Gutenberg’s contibution is much-much more.  

Both these revolutions have been an inspiration to me and I I say these things becasue I am a printer by profession, a communicator by passion and an economist by training. I try to understand the things happening around me and to comprehend the past, present and future. I feel people like Gutenberg tried to achieve the same! Gutenberg died as a pauper. Maybe, Sergey and Larry will donate huge amounts of wealth in charity.

The gen-next internet will be 10,000 times faster than the current one. Today’s modern PC take 473 years to process, the same could be handled in a hour. That’s the speed the communication technology of data processing. We are fortunate to be part of it and in a position to contribute.

An advanced technological society, led to the birth of internet (a new media transaction). And Google – the search engine is the gate for this new media transaction.

There is a strong link between printing and IT. Steve Jobs was a perfect example who adhered to this. He was a calligrapher in California who went on to become a font manager at Apple.

There are other trends. Data-ripping for transmission of newspapers was done through fascimili which was bolstered further by the Japanese who introduced it for the consumers as fax machines. The terminology used in DTP like landscape and portrait originate from the printing world.

There’s a lot more. We’ve merely taken our first – tentative – step on the digital ladder.

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