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It has become commonplace to claim that the telecommunications and computer revolutions in technology in the twentieth century are the greatest changes affecting information processing and distribution since Gutenberg. But those who make such claims then wave their hands when asked what difference it makes--and what difference Gutenberg made.
Elizabeth Eisenstein sets out to analyze what difference Gutenberg made: how Europe in the sixteenth century and beyond would have been different had Gutenberg not begun carving letters out of wood and putting them in trays, and had no one replaced his efforts.
First, note--importantly--that the cultural matrix in which technology is embedded is of vital importance. Sir Francis Bacon, for example, noted that the three inventions of gunpowder, the compass, and printing had utterly transformed Europe. Yet all three of these were known, indeed invented, in China. And they had not transformed China. Moreover--or perhaps this is part of the same point--in every age before universal education, printing's direct impact is confined to a relatively small stratum of the population.
These points conceded, however, the magnitude of the change in information processing and distribution resulting from printing takes your breath away. Over the fifty years separating pre-Gutenberg times from the start of the sixteenth century, the cost of producing a book fell by a factor of several hundredfold: for the time and skilled labor that a monastic scribe would have taken to produce several manuscript copies of a work, a post-Gutenberg printer could (using a different kind of skilled labor) produce 1,000 copies.
After Gutenberg the purchase of a book was a more significant decision than today, when buying a book consumes the money earned in 15 or 30 minutes of work by the average established member of the literati. Technical progress in book production has contributed to further tenfold or so since the immediate post-Gutenberg age; offsetting this is the fact that the average established member of the literati ranked considerably higher in the income scale in the sixteenth century than today; the representative book purchaser in the sixteenth century spent the equivalent of an hour or two's wages on a book.
Contrast this with the month or more's worth spent on creating and purchasing a pre-Gutenberg manuscript--overhead for maintaining the library and the scriptorium, the time of the copyist (and the requirement that the copyist be highly literate lest he corrupt the manuscript), and distribution of what was truly a one-of-a-kind product.
What difference did it make that the cost of production of the "unit of information" that was a book went from weeks or months of skilled labor time to hours of skilled labor time?
Eisenstein makes a strong case for four very important consequences of this reduction in the cost of books:
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