Sunday, February 3, 2008

Beginning of the Information Age

The founder of the Information Age died on this date, way back in 1468. Johan Gutenberg brought together many existing techonologies to invent the first printing press with movable type, around 1450, which allowed books to be generated at the blazing speed of maybe 20 in a month! A hand-written Bible took a year or more to finish, so Gutenberg's Bibles were fast - and cheap, even though they were still astronomically expensive - by comparison. His technology spread rapidly, and before long printing presses were active in much of Europe; by 1501 there were 1000 printing shops, which had produced 35,000 titles. Once people figured out that technology could speed the dissemination of information, it wasn't (too) long before the telegraph was invented, followed by the telephone, radio, television, and internet.

His invention also had all kinds of social impacts. The ability to create multiple identical copies created a community of scientists, introduced the idea of priority of publication, and eventually led to the "publish or perish" of modern universities. Over time, identical copies also generated a standardized form of the vernacular languages in Europe, leading to the growth of national identities and eventually nationalism. And the availability of Bibles and other religious books led to the Reformation, with its focus on the text of the Bible rather than the preacher. Compared to all this, the transformations wrought by the internet are noticeable for their speed more than their depth.

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