The iPad: What is a Gutenberg moment, anyway?

Dennis Baron debaron at ILLINOIS.EDU
Tue Apr 6 14:52:37 UTC 2010

There's a new post on the Web of Language:

The iPad: What is a Gutenberg moment, anyway?

For months, commentators have been referring to the release of Apple’s  
iPad – it finally went on sale on April 3 – as a “Gutenberg moment,”  
or insisting, if they don’t like the idea of the iPad, that it has no  
hope of being a Gutenberg moment. In either case they’re comparing the  
new tablet device, which most of them hadn’t even seen, to Johannes  
Gutenberg’s rollout of the first printing press in the 1450s. To be  
fair, these commentators never saw Gutenberg’s press either, or any  
kind of printing press at all.

A Gutenberg moment is one which changes the way we produce and consume  
text as dramatically as Gutenberg’s machine did. Before Gutenberg  
rigged a wine press so that it could press a sheet of paper against  
inked, movable, cast-metal type, scribes laboriously copied books by  
hand, leaf by leaf, volume by volume, a process that was so slow and  
so expensive that only the filthy rich could afford to own any books.  
Gutenberg’s press enabled the mass production of books, whose lower  
unit cost democratized book ownership: anybody could buy a book, or at  
least borrow one from the library. Another thing about the Gutenberg  
moment: scribes were notorious for introducing errors into the books  
they copied, but the press allowed books to be cloned ad infinitum.  
After Gutenberg, there’s perfect copy, every time.

If you believe the printing press did all that, then there’s a bridge  
in Brooklyn you might want to buy, or maybe I could interest you in  
some priced-to-sell subprime mortgage instruments?

... and if you want to read the rest of this post, click on the Web of  

Dennis Baron
Professor of English and Linguistics
Department of English
University of Illinois
608 S. Wright St.
Urbana, IL 61801

office: 217-244-0568
fax: 217-333-4321

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