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Lessons of the gutenberg bible In 1995 or, more relevantly, when I was 8 years old, I was part of something that only a very specific age group would ever experience, after 25 years of perfecting mainframe computers and 13 years after the invention of the microchip, the personal computer had already made it’s way into my house, but most importantly my somewhat geeky family was at the forefront of technology with a 56kb/s dial up connection to the internet.


Only a handful of us will remember what it was like to, as children, witness the transition from an analog, paper based and somewhat mechanical society to the virtual, immaterial Information Era. It is astounding to think that, although the virtual world hadn’t replaced the analogical, we were so promptly able to adapt and interact with a system so radically different from it’s predecessor. The virtual world is a dimension of it’s own; where in the material world we dealt with information on a static, linear and two dimensional way, the virtual space encourages a more lateral, three dimensional and dynamic thinking based much more on a quantum world rather than material. Not only have we been able to adapt to the virtual world but we’ve become so familiar with it that anyone is able to alter, expand and develop it, greatly because of it being in real time. The reason for this immediate assimilation of the virtual world is because it is largely based on the way we interact with printed media, websites are based on pages where you can scroll to navigate, in spite of the potential of the virtual space we still think, communicate and design in a linear and two dimensional way.


At a first glance an object so distant from our reality as Gutenberg’s 42 line Bible, can easily be confused with an object who’s place in a museum is only assured by it’s age and for being the first of it’s kind. However, the changes brought on by the invention of the press and the emergence of an editorial market are, if not very similar, very much transferable and relatable to the aftermath of the information market created by the evolution of the internet. The developments that the invention of the portable book ensues have shaped modern society and, to some extent created guidelines for the virtual world’s behaviour, be that as it may, it’s becoming more and more clear in the light of contemporaneity that these paradigms are not timeless and should not be sparred from scrutiny. As pointed out by Marshall McLuhan, the portable book enabled the existence of the individual point of view, but more than that, it created the notion of intellectual property as a direct consequence of the growing information market. Regardless of intellectual property being the cause or the consequence, the individualist way of thinking coincides with the rise of the capitalist superstructure and the subsequent rise of a cult of the individual.


More often than not the creation of a world wide web is viewed as a democratization of knowledge in the exact image of that enabled by the creation of the printing press with the exception of it being in a larger scale. Granted that the popular social media websites do glorify an individualistic and narcissistic mentality, even in these very sites but also in the entirety of the internet the manner in which people interact and behave tend towards a group mentality. The use of open software and open operational systems has shown that without the impediment of copyright laws the softwares have evolved in a much faster rate than those subjected to the commercial and bureaucratic structures of large corporations. The volume and content of the information that became promptly available with the mechanical printing method were not, however, the only innovation brought by Gutenberg’s invention. The form in which information is displayed had also drastically changed. Although Gutenberg himself did not make great advancements in the aesthetics field maintaining the same page composition and blackletter typeface already in use in gothic scrolls while printing the 42 line Bible, mechanical printing not only allowed but craved for a new array of typefaces. Page composition soon became an equally great concern not only because of the technical implications of the printing press and the setting of text but more relevantly because of the idea of graphic space as something that is subject to standardization and scientific criteria. The notion of a grid became more evident and would eventually became a major element of composition in modern design.


Although, post-modernism has produced a hugely creative and meaningful visual aesthetics, in its attempts to break out of the grid or eliminate it all together we are yet to take advantage of the fluidity of the virtual space. In a way because the necessity to rationalize and standardize has long established itself in nearly all aspects of life: the chemist Dimitry Mendelev predicted qualities of unknown elements at the time by creating a grid, the periodic table, and establishing correlation between the known elements, Modernist design and architecture saw in the grid, the possibility of a more equalitarian form of society. Existence inside a superstructure slowly became a reality. In spite of, or maybe because, we are born into this superstructure in a Matrix like scenario, it has made itself simultaneously more evident and more covert, as we gained unlimited access to information we have also willingly supplied personal information that is constantly being monitored, bought and sold. Although the unrestricted access to information might at first glance sound tempting, in reality it is an illusion in two ways: we currently suffer from an overload of information that renders us unable to process and assimilate it and digital data, contrary to popular belief, does degrade with time, so much so that we risk a digital dark age if we do not seriously rethink the way we store data.


Looking back once more into my childhood and the not so distant past it becomes clear that 42 line Bible can provide contemporary society with many valuable lessons. I remember vividly how the role of technology and protecting information became increasingly more important. I remember the chaos of a world without spam filters but also without constant adverts in every website, my first credit card, and bank pin generators. But what I don’t remember is equally important, the difference between the graphic space in the virtual realm now and then, and that is because it has not changed. Most importantly the greatest lesson to take from gazing upon the first book ever mechanically printed is that information deserves respect, it must be protected not only from the hazards of virtual crime but also from the institutionalized paradigms of copyright legislation that is being used as an excuse to infringe human rights of access to information.


CSM BAGD - Unit 3 Context  

Essay on contemporary society and the digital world derived from the observation of the Gutenberg Bible at the British Library