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The iPad: What's a Gutenberg Moment, Anyway?

Apple's iPad tablet computer is being heralded as a technological advance on par with Gutenberg's invention of the printing press. Mere hyperbole? University of Illinois linguist Dennis Baron takes a look, and considers how the iPad might revolutionize the way we interact with text.

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 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? It's fine to characterize a Gutenberg moment as a revolution in text delivery, but only if you acknowledge that it actually took not a moment, but several hundred years, for the real effects of printing to take hold.

Like hand-copying, Gutenberg's press was a slow, labor-intensive process that involved typesetting, printing one page at a time, drying inked pages, correcting them, adding the many illustrations to each page by hand, breaking down the type, typesetting the next page, and so on, not to mention sewing the printed sheets together into fascicles, and binding the completed volume between covers. Because paper was expensive, sheets with errors in them were not discarded but were bound into finished books. Each copy of a book contained pages in various stages of correction, and as with manuscript copies, there were no clones: each of the 200 or so surviving copies of Shakespeare's 1623 First Folio, about half the original print run, is a little different from the others, as is each of the surviving Gutenberg bibles.

A scriptorium might be slow, but fifteenth-century print shops were also slow, producing tens of copies of a book, or, for a high-demand title, hundreds of copies, though that would take time. According to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, which owns one of five complete Gutenberg bibles in the United States, it took up to five years for Gutenberg's shop, which may have used more than one press, to crank out 180 copies of the first printed book, at a per-copy cost so high that they were acquired not by individuals but by the wealthiest churches and monasteries.

Mass produced, highly-affordable text had to wait until the invention of the steam press in the 19th century, but even then, most writing — business documents, personal letters, and all the words that would wind up printed in books, magazines, and newspapers — continued to be drafted by hand. It wasn't until the invention of the typewriter in the 1870s that keyboarded text would begin to edge out handwriting as the principal method of putting words on paper.

The personal computer was closer to a Gutenberg moment than the printing press ever was. The PC was conceived as a number cruncher, not a word processor. Its initial text capabilities were clunky, if not profoundly discouraging. Yet in only a couple of decades the PC revolutionized the production and distribution of the written word. Even so, digital text, which may be cheap, isn't all that democratic: plenty of the world's have-nots find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide, being left farther and farther behind as the rest of us — those who are reading this blog post, for example — come increasingly to depend on the words in cyberspace.

And while a computer's "copy" command can produce cloned text more effectively than any press or scribe, online text represents perhaps the most unstable text in the history of writing: words on the web morph regularly, subtly, and without warning. The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said you can't put your foot in the same river twice, because that river is constantly changing. Were he alive today, he'd probably insist that in the digital age, you can't read the same text twice, because it, too, is ever in flux.

So, will the iPad be the next Gutenberg moment? No one really knows yet what the iPad can do. At this writing, it's only three days old, far too early to predict its future reliably. The iPad's promise depends to a great extent on the apps that become available, and even more on how iPad owners decide to use their machines. Initial reviews hail the iPad as an entertainment device, great for reading the paper or a book, playing a game, surfing the web, watching a video, maybe doing a little email. It's not a creative tool, and all the reviewers warn iPad owners not to give up their laptops, at least not yet.

Some critics are also alarmed that users can't program their own iPads, that Apple must approve all iPad software. But most writers aren't interested in reprogramming their computers any more than they're interested in making their own pens or pencils or typewriters or presses. They're happy to let people like Gutenberg and Steve Jobs do that for them. What writers want is a better way to create and distribute their texts. There's nothing to prevent the iPad from becoming the next printing press, or at least the next iteration of the personal computer. Maybe this is not a Gutenberg moment, however one chooses to define that elusive phrase, but the iPad has the potential to outstrip the laptop as an effective writing tool. All that will take is some software and hardware tweaks, and some determined users intrigued enough with the machine's potential for text production to make it so.

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Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois and writes regularly on linguistic issues at The Web of Language. He is the author of A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution. You can follow him on Twitter @DrGrammar. Click here to read more articles by Dennis Baron.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday April 8th 2010, 3:00 AM
Comment by: Johnny K. (Avenches Switzerland)
Professor Baron,

Thank you for this article. I sympathise with your mention of other journalists' cavalier use of the Gutenberg analogy, although i believe Mr Jobs' claim to fame is more akin to Johannes' original metier; more in the Midas Touch arena through innovation than pure invention.

I applaud the fusion of your reflections on Apple's new toy, for which I will, of course, await the second version, with a very comfortable stroll down history lane. I've read more lines about the iPad in the past few months than I've been exposed to news headlines on any subject. Yet your article was refreshingly calming to my oft fragile appreciation for the properly-served written word.

Horrah and Bravo

Sultan of Cognac
Thursday April 8th 2010, 8:18 AM
Comment by: Rees M. (Ann Arbor, MI)
I enjoyed the article but wish it had speculated on some of the innovative ways the iPad might work with text. I can imagine a Visual Thesaurus approach being constantly available for any word in text that one is creating: double tap on a word and watch it push the other text aside as alternative words relevant to the surrounding text appear in logical groupings. Highlight a phrase and watch alternative phrases appear. The freedom and speed of text and visual handling of the iPad has the potential to change how we write. The ability to move blocks of highlighted text in a flowing motion with suggestions for ways to join neighbors could make writing fun. A wonderful thought!
Thursday April 8th 2010, 8:46 AM
Comment by: Tom W. (New York, NY)
"It's initial text capabilities were clunky, if not profoundly discouraging."

I wonder if this mistake will be corrected, which would be good for grammar's sake, and thereby become part of the constantly changing river of text on the Web. Perhaps it should be left in, to accurately portray what was originally published.

What do you think?

[How about we fix the error in the text but leave your comment as a trace of its former existence? —Ed.]
Thursday April 8th 2010, 12:45 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Ah, it was changed from 'It's'! Good hunting, Ted.

I wonder that too many suggestions appearing with a simple double click or so would result in a loss of creativity, or worse still, having writing reflect what a programmer is capable of rather than what a mind might be. Just a thought... Or a question.

Anyone who remembers the 50s and getting inked papers from teachers in school realizes what steps were made in duplicating before 'copy' came along. 'Copy' is a magnificent leap.

Computer keyboards are also less difficult than even the Selectric typewriter keyboards were.

So, Gutenburg moments? I don't know if it means that much of a leap. But then we needed Edison's work (or someone else's) before we could have computers.

A big chain was needed to reach where we are. And we will be primitive some day.
Thursday April 8th 2010, 4:41 PM
Comment by: Angelique C.
Thank you for a catalogued history of the Gutenberg Press, while at the same time poking fun at America's love affair with hyperbole.

I plan to share your essay with my students, as an example of why "Shakespeare makes me crazy!" is not a valid critique of his work.
Thursday April 8th 2010, 6:04 PM
Comment by: Dennis B. (Urbana, IL)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I caught the it's error in the original as well -- it's (sic) what comes from writing late at night, with a small font (dictated by the blog software) and being presbyopic, to boot. In other words, there's no excuse.
Thursday April 8th 2010, 9:16 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
And I learned a new word. I'll use that when there might be dust around. Thanks, Dennis.

Angelique, fortunately for Shakespeare, I never had to teach any of his works. But as a student, I resorted to his distortion of history as an excuse. That seemed a lot more inventive than 'drives me crazy!'

In addition, Shakespeare in my school was reading his plays in class. Each person read a speech in order of seating. You'd count ahead to see how many kids had to read before you and hope no one stumbled so badly that the teacher would skip and get you away from the one speech you'd been practicing instead of absorbing anything Shakespearian.

A good way NOT to teach!

I did like the stories, however. Just not the history that he messed up.
Friday April 9th 2010, 6:34 AM
Comment by: Anonymous
Maybe not terribly relevant, but since the topic veered for a time to errors I'd like to ask about something that has been bothering me for a long time. I notice with countless books, even bestsellers, that many typos and other errors are left untouched edition after edition. That seems very strange to me, considering that the text of most modern books is presumably kept in computer files that could be edited as soon as an error is spotted. Is it because publishers can't afford to hire proofreaders? Is it because there aren't many good proofreaders around? Is it because publishers don't care? And I'm wondering why publishers don't leverage the knowledge and time of readers. I imagine printed books having a dedicated URL printed in the front matter; visiting the URL would allow any reader to submit a form nominating a page and line as an error, along with their suggested correction. The publisher wouldn't have to respond to the reader, or do anything until the time came to produce the next edition.
Friday April 9th 2010, 9:59 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Some editors read and are contributors to this column, Rick. Perhaps you will get an answer, but I'd like to see some examples.

Are you talking fiction or non-fiction?

I do notice some errors, but more often I'm amazed when someone gets it right. Perhaps this is because I'm a big fan of novels that are somewhat less than great literature!

However, I grit my teeth when one of my favourite authors uses 'less' where it should be 'fewer', and I too wonder where his (Clancy's) editor is.

Heck, it's probably not cool to being a fan of the Jack Ryan novels by Tom Clancy here! Won't turn me from them, though. Nope... Not even his lack of a coherent time line from one to the next can deter me. Makes me wonder, but doesn't deter. (He acknowledges this and doesn't even try to get his books clearly in time. Makes his readers work to figure out what year he's writing about, and keeps our minds active!)

Maybe some editors get sick and tired of coping with authors that do things like that, or who make consistent grammatical errors.

He gets some things right, however, that most miss. So the editor is there, or else the nuns hammered basic grammar into him, too, except for fewer and less!

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