heading out of the gutenberg parenthesis

I gave a talk for local librarians on Wednesday, which ended up being about the idea that the age of print was but a short blip in the history of human culture, the Gutenberg Parenthesis, as Tom Pettitt and others have called it (see this PDF for Pettitt’s paper on the topic at MIT5), and that we’re now in the post-parenthetical period. I love the Gutenberg Parenthesis concept – it seems such a great way of explaining the changes we’re going through. But the librarians did point out some problems – for instance, why did copyright appear so late in the age of print if it’s one of the defining features of the Gutenberg Parenthesis? Ibsen didn’t actually own copyright to his own works at the end of the nineteenth century – his publisher did, though. And did I realise that early printers used to travel around from village to village and set up their portable printers and publish small runs of whatever people wanted? Well, no, I hadn’t. Well, the librarian continued, the “authority” and mass-media quality of print wasn’t an issue until Richelieu decided that the state needed more information about its citizens and suddenly required all printed material to be sent to the government – and this idea that print should be controlled by the government quickly spread to other countries. Isn’t that a great example, by the way, of how technology and culture/society are interdependent?

I think these objections merely show that the transitional periods are extremely long, and that norms and expectations based on a previous technology carry over far past the extinction of that technology. That’s why copyright extends and even increases in today’s world, despite its being largely unsuitable for today’s technology and communication.

Having thought about this all Wednesday, Thursday’s lecture to my web design students ended up circling around the same issues – and all the links and so on are summarised in the class blog [Update Sept ’09 – Oops – a teaching assistent deleted THE WHOLE BLOG for that class so that link won’t work and all my notes are lost. GRRR!]

23. January 2009 by Jill

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