I remember a few weeks back when hearing a lecture of Professor Steintrager‘s of how Rousseau saw the printing press as ‘evil’. Of course I didn’t think too much about it until I realized that the printing press was a technology that changed the world completely and essentially became an empire in itself through the change that it induced.
But first some quick background on the printing press. For the longest time before the printing press, books were produced by hand, and were written on a variety of surfaces, including clay, papyrus, wax, and parchment. Each book had to be painstakingly copied over and even still had mistakes due to the copier. Because the meticulous effort and the time necessary to create books, books,and in turn the knowledge they contained, were expensive and thus only the rich were ‘educated’ and the poor were left to fester in poverty and ignorance.
However, all of that changed when Gutenberg embarked on what he called the famous ‘Bible Project’ in which he would use his newly created movable type to copy 200 copies of his Gutenberg Bible. He was successful of course, and his ‘copied’ bibles would earn him a great deal of profit. Despite trying to keep his technique a secret and keep the profits for himself, the technique quickly got out and within 50 years, over 2500 European cities had some similar device derived off of the original Gutenberg press.
Within that century, book costs had substantially dropped, and knowledge was more easily disseminated to the lower classes. No longer were the poor forced to remain in ignorance, but could now actually afford knowledge and books so that they could learn. But most importantly, the printing press created what the History Guide likes to call a “information revolution”.
It was apparent how much of an impact the printing press actually had. By the 16th century, the output of books increased to an estimated 150 to 160 million copies, more than ten times the output before the printing press. And thus the industry known as the ‘press’ was created, an empire in itself.
The press which would become what we know as ‘news’ or the newspaper has a very apparent impact on our lives today. As I mentioned in previous posts, social media has become ‘news’ for a lot of people and shapes public opinion, going so far as to even affect, either crippling or helping presidential figures. Many companies and individuals realize the power of social media and news and as such all employ some sort of media team to give off the best positive image of their brand, or person.
But enough digression into the modern age. We’re now back in familiar territory. As I mentioned at the start of the post, the printing press furthered the spread of knowledge, something that Rousseau argued was evil, claiming that it allowed for the corruption of mores and the spread of the ‘evil’ arts and sciences. At that time, the world was undergoing what would be known as the Enlightenment in which new ideas were popping up. As Rousseau noted, the problem with the printing press was that it allowed for the ideas of ‘dead’ people to survive and continue to spread. It can be argued that without the printing press, the Enlightenment would have never occurred. Ideas would never spread to the extent they did. And just as Rousseau noted, these ideas continued to survive even if the person died, allowing others to build on or refute them, creating a discourse that is still present today. Just look at the many scientists around us today who are trying to disprove a theory that someone else came up with or trying to advance it.
Our world is built upon the discourse between many, and this allows us to improve and continue to innovate society as people all around the world build upon and bring their own perspectives into the discussion. Yet despite the slow change from hard back copies into an online world, it’s hard to imagine a world that where the printing press never existed.
The printing press was and still is one of the most important and innovative inventions of all time, completely changing how the world functions and runs. It completely expedited human progress and aided in the advancement of the modern world. With how much it changed society and how it was hugely responsible for our educated lives today, whose to say that the printing press wasn’t an empire?