The comparison of the printing industry in Venice to the tech industry in Silicon Valley is not Eric White’s. It was made in 2005, by a historian of the printed word named Elizabeth Eisenstein, in the afterword to The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, an abridged edition of her monumental The Printing Press as an Agent of Change. Eisenstein’s original two-volume study was published in 1979, before personal computers and the internet began to work their will, but she was well aware of subsequent developments.
Eisenstein, who died in 2016 at the age of 92, was sharp, elegant, funny, and determined. She had picked up tennis late, at age 50; playing in the senior division, she won more than 30 national championships, the last when she was in her 90s. Breaking into academe as a woman in the 1950s had not been easy, but her work on the impact of the printing press, published in her sixth decade, proved to be another senior-division win. Many historians had written about Gutenberg and noted the role the printing press played in fostering the Reformation. But no one had mounted a vigorous investigation of the invention’s broader long-term consequences. Betty was 80 when I met her. Over several dinner conversations, she spoke at length about the printing press—the manifest good that it had done, in terms of spreading and “fixing” knowledge, but also the massive disruption it had caused. Disruption was the actual word she used. She didn’t mean it in a self-congratulatory, tech-mogul sort of way.
The printing press took most people by surprise—it wasn’t a technology that everyone had been dreaming about for centuries, like flying machines—and its ramifications were dramatic. Printing gave rise to a “start-up” culture (again, Eisenstein’s term): Many printing shops failed, but many didn’t. Within a few decades, at least one printing press could be found in every sizable community—not just the Romes and the Londons, but also the Augsburgs and the Erfurts and the Modenas. The cost of entry was low. More books were printed in the five decades after Gutenberg’s invention than had been produced by scribes during the previous 1,000 years.
The printing press decentralized the role of gatekeeper. In a scribal culture, maintaining some measure of control over ideas and their dissemination was straightforward. In a printing-press culture, control was harder. Within their own jurisdictions, rulers tried anyway, and so did the Church. The word imprimatur is Latin for “Let it be printed”—it connoted official sanction. But more people had greater opportunities for public expression than ever before. Thwarted in Heidelberg, you could try Geneva or Utrecht.
The sheer number of books that printers produced made suppression problematic. Having your book land on someone’s watch list could even turn it into a best seller: Banned in Bologna! And words weren’t the only things that came off the press; mass-produced images, in the form of woodblock prints, shaped opinion even among the illiterate. Printing was referred to as a “divine art,” and the masters of this technology, in aprons rather than hoodies, could sometimes be a little full of themselves.
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