Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Printing press: scaling up for learning

The printing press was not invented by Gutenberg nor was it a single technology. In The Nature of Technology, Brian Arthur shows that technology is often an accumulation and convergence of previous technologies. In this case the availability of cheap paper, improvements in indelible ink, casting of moveable type and the screw press; all contributed towards quick and cheap printing. Paper remained a problem even after the printing press was used as it was so expensive and made from rags and vellum was still hugely expensive.
It wasn’t all plain printing. Gutenberg got into deep debt while working in his press and had to pass his workshop over to his investor. One of his first books, the Gutenberg Bible, took two years to typeset and print.
Don’t forget the software
Note that although the Chinese invented paper, block printing and even moveable type, their character based language made Gutenberg type presses impractical. It was the existence of another piece of technology, the Roman alphabet, that made the presses practical. This is yet another example of how the software is the real, deep driver behind a technological advance.
Scaling up
The number of books exploded, the prices plummeted and the idea of writing, as opposed to just reading fixed texts took root. It was a technology (or set of technologies) that was to cause irreversible change in the world.
The Bible was, of course, the first to be printed, along with indulgences by the Catholic Church, the misuse of which led to Luther’s Protestant Reformation and his best-selling, vernacular, German Bible (200,000 in his lifetime). The boost to science was also considerable, as findings, criticism and commentaries could be written, printed and disseminated at speed.
In science, it wasn’t long before the works of Galileo appeared and Copernicus was to turn the world on its head with De Revolutionibus. Atlases and maps allowed European explorers to conquer the globe. Classical texts were revived and widely read.
Learning through print
Before the printing press revolution academic learning was oral by listening to an expert, who often read from a book. The word ‘lecture’ meant ‘to read’ until the 14th century, so students were likely to simply hear portions of books being read aloud.
Print meant relatively large batches (200-1000) of identical texts. The printed book, like the modern mobile, was portable, personal and could be read at any time and in any place. It freed knowledge from the tyranny of time and location. You no longer had to hear someone transmit knowledge at a particular time or place. It also meant the democritisation of knowledge, and therefore learning, as scalability through the replication of books enabled the many and not just the few, to learn. Indeed, scholars expanded in number but more importantly, so did readers. Reading became a common pedagogic technique.
Note that the reformation, itself a product of printing, promoted personal development through education, especially for the poor.
Printing transformed
Printing was transformed in the 19th century by faster and more efficient, steam driven, cylinder presses, rotary presses, multiple feeders and paper from pulp that was manufactured in huge rolls. The photocopier and computer printer then took printing, first into the high-street, then into businesses and the home. This led to a boom in shoddy A4 photocopied sheets of homework.
Digital print reformation
With the internet and world wide web, an age of digital abundance is flourishing, similar to that of the post-Gutenberg era. The shift from atoms to bits means that print is not only infinitely replicable, it is easy to distribute. In a sense it is our own devices that ‘print’ text to our screens. We have control over the font size. We use search, as opposed to indexes. The world of print has changed, irrevocably. The digital genie is out of the bottle.
Gutenberg’s printing press with moveable type changed the course of knowledge production, dissemination and therefore learning. It led to a radical shift in what we could learn, how we learn, when we could learn and where we could learn.
Eisenstein, E. L. (1979). The printing press as an agent of change: Communications and cultural transformations in early modern Europe. Cambridge [Eng.: Cambridge University Press

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