Would Johannes Gutenberg buy a smartphone today?

Johannes Gutenberg was born between 1394 and 1405 – nobody knows exactly. But to be honest, that’s not really what counts. What matters, however, is that Mr. Gutenberg’s development of book printing triggered no more and no less than a third media revolution. Now you may ask yourself (and rightly so): What were the first two revolutions? The formation of a language and the invention of complex writing systems are generally regarded as important evolutionary stages of human development. Now, at the latest, the significance of Johannes Gutenberg’s book printing invention becomes very clear. Books could be produced faster and in larger quantities with the help of technology, thus becoming cheaper and gradually reaching the masses. Do you notice anything?

Faster, cheaper, always available

Does that look familiar to you? With the invention of the World Wide Web at the latest, the Internet became a medium for the masses. Even faster, even cheaper, always available! The smartphone itself made this medium of our information age even more mobile. Soon it became possible to consume information at any time on a smartphone in every corner of the world.

So back to the original question: Would Mr Gutenberg buy a smartphone, use social media and disseminate information via the general platform – the Internet?

Of course, we cannot go back to the past and ask Mr Gutenberg about this. I would doubt that he could understand what he would be holding in his hands if he were given a smartphone. Nevertheless, there are so many parallels between the two technologies that I conclude that Mr Gutenberg is a fan of the digital media age.  Johannes Gutenberg would certainly have what it takes to be one of those pioneers of the digital media age who are actively shaping the digital revolution.

Why do I arrive at this thesis?

Reflecting on history helps to better understand today’s developments. In the time after Gutenberg, there was a real rush during the founding of many printing companies. Groundbreaking inventions were made by courageous pioneers, whilst other pioneers, with no less courage, failed because of their plans. Investors with venture capital were attracted by this founding spirit and a climate emerged that accelerated innovation like an incubator. Everyone wanted to be the first, the first with new book titles, the first to spread information, the first with new technologies. This development was not without its adversaries. Discussions arose as to whether such mass dissemination of information should not be controlled. Wouldn’t numerous books lead to a dulling of mankind or make it superficial? Wouldn’t the power structure of that time be in danger if everyone – no matter what their origin or wallet – had information from books at their disposal? In Rome, but also elsewhere at that time, printing houses were subject to strict controls out of these fears, even book bonfires were carried out. If there was a news program from that time, many news items would seem very familiar to us.

However, there are also differences in all similarities: While the first information age of more than 500 years was dominated by information printed on paper and for a long time printing technology was the only mass distribution medium, our technology is developing rapidly in today’s information age. In less than 30 years, we have lived through several generations of technology and have been confronted with new forms of communication and information platforms. We saw many Internet giants coming and some going again. The dizzying speed of innovation coupled with the deep impact on people’s daily lives and coexistence, as in the time after Gutenberg, leads to discussions about freedom of information and the call for control.

Is it now a fixed result of the fourth media revolution that print and paper will eventually be completely replaced?

Given the recent history of today’s digital information age, it would be very presumptuous to look to the distant future. So let’s confine ourselves to the next ten to fifteen years: digital information is already the first choice today. But within the digitally dominated world, there is a place for the printed word. Just as many books today are displayed as digital versions on a digital device, but many people still reach for the printed version, there will also be print within a digitally dominated world. But print will have to reinvent itself.

It is exciting and welcome that it has become so easy to disseminate content. From a communicative point of view, the transition from the third to the fourth media revolution is the same as from the first to the second:

Or did people stop speaking when writing systems spread among people?