Thoughts on Stephen Fry and the Gutenberg Press

I watched Stephen Fry’s documentary about the Gutenberg Press on Channel 4 last night, and was taken with a couple of issues he raised.

The first was his parting shot, where he spoke of imagining a world without mobile phones or cars, but said he found it impossible to conceive of life as we know it without the printed word.

Of course, the theme of crisis in the newspaper publishing industry has been doing the rounds for a good few years now. And there’s no getting away from what seems a fairly long-term trend in dwindling circulations.

So it was prescient that within 24 hours of the documentary’s broadcast this story broke, about the mass-sacking of employees at Butler and Tanner Printers Ltd in Frome, Somerset. Just as Gutenberg’s livelihood was cut short by bankruptcy, so these employees of a modern day printing press have lost their jobs in an adverse market.

But is it really possible that the writing on the wall for the publishing industry will be a very different movable type?

The second issue raised in the documentary concerns the wave of publishing which swept 15th century Europe, and the democratising impact it had on our history. Without the printed word, it could be argued, we would have no Enlightenment.

And so we have come full circle today – where bloggers and other web 2.0 anarcho-syndicalists claim to stand firm against the mainstream media oligarchs, who pedal us news filtered through their own material self-interest.

Or so we are led to believe. An article in Slate from yesterday suggests online publishing communities like Wikipedia and Digg, far from being the pluralistic utopias some claim, are in fact dominated by a small cartel of prolific and controlling ‘citizens’. Not that this should come as any major surprise to anyone familiar with the 90-9-1 theory of online participation.

Still, when trumpeting the democratic advantages of online copy over hard-copy publishing, it’s worth bearing in mind which percentile your moderator might fall into.


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