Prior to the digital revolution that is currently underway, the printing press was the means by which words achieved permanence. Although spoken words maintain continuity over time, the passing of those words from generation to generation inevitably leads to change and reinterpretation; be that accidental or intentional. In one sense, the printing press is analogous to pre-digital photography. Once a photo had been taken there was a negative which was, in theory, “the original” picture. Similarly, what was/is printed cannot be easily erased.
Both technologies were expensive and beyond the reach of the overwhelming majority of people when first available. This brings in another dimension. Who decided what was worthy of print? Who could afford to print it?
Chris Butler (no date) explains on www.flowofhistory.com that “the first printed books were religious in nature…” but the printing press “…soon changed the forms and uses of books quite radically. Books stopped imitating manuscript forms… They also covered an increasingly wider variety of non-religious topics (such as grammars, etiquette, and geology books) that appealed especially to the professional members of the middle class.”
He goes on to highlight the effect that the printing press had on science. It was possible for scientists to print and share their work with many other scientists. This process is claimed to have carried on and led “…to the Scientific Revolution of the Enlightenment, which would radically alter how Europeans viewed the world and universe.”
It is interesting to fast forward to the current century. Whilst newspapers have, at times, been considered to be capable of influencing public opinion on a large scale, the printed word is in turmoil. The internet has given rise to an enormous range of social media and a host of online forms of digital text, ranging from self-published books on Amazon to the Huffington Post. Quoted on BBC’s future website by Rachel Nuwer, Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University in Massachusetts (2016) suggests, “…never before have we had such a democratisation of knowledge made possible.” If this is true, then the printing press can take some credit for this being made possible.
This comment from Roser and Ortiz-Ospina (no date) serves as a useful reminder of possibly the greatest impact of the printing press, “…widespread literacy is considered a legacy of the Age of Enlightenment.”
And so we have an interesting dichotomy. The printing press, originally expensive with the control of what was printed in the hands of very few, has ultimately led to huge increases in literacy across the planet. This, combined with technological changes, now allows anyone to write and to offer their work to readers all over the world.
Butler, C. (1998) The invention of the printing press and its effects. At: http://www.flowofhistory.com/units/west/11/FC74 (Accessed on 19 July 2017)
Nuwer, R. (2016) If the printed word becomes a thing of the past, it may affect how we think. At: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20160124-are-paper-books-really-disappearing (Accessed on 19 July 2017)
Roser, M. and Ortiz-Ospina, E. (no date) Literacy. At: https://ourworldindata.org/literacy/ (Accessed on 19 July 2017)