HAYDEN HOLLINGSWORTH: Good-Bye to Gutenberg

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Hayden Hollingsworth

In the year 1439 there appeared an invention that was perhaps the most important happening in the second millennium.  The inventor is remembered as Johannes Gutenberg, although his full name is much longer, and his invention of moveable type for printing altered the course of history.  Up until that milestone manuscripts were written by hand, letters carved into wooden blocks and then painstakingly transferred to parchment.

So onerous was the task that virtually no one – beyond monastics and academics in the western world – was literate.  Gutenberg’s invention revolutionized communications which led to the rise of proto-nationalism, cultural self-awareness, the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the beginning of scientific inquiry.  Mass communication by print literally changed the face of western civilization.  In the nineteen century the rotary steam-powered press became the sole medium for modern bulk printing.

In the last three decades that has changed and the important role of printed material has seen a revolution no less dramatic than Gutenberg and his printing press.  Printed media has largely been relegated to advertisement; the passing of knowledge and news has been co-opted by cybernetics, word that was not in existence until the 1960s.   It comes from the Greek kubernan meaning “to steer.”

And steer is has; the old-fashioned newspapers where one actually got “the news” are scrambling to escape the death knell.  The weekly magazines are now reduced to technical journals.   The elderlies among us can remember the day of the week when Life, The Saturday Evening Post (founded by Ben Franklin), Look, Collier’s and a host of others would arrive.

Of course, there are multiple other reasons all of them are now collectors’ items, chief among them the fact that we have a myriad of cyber devices that now entertain us.  In the world of today there is instant news and it is available worldwide in nanoseconds.  When (and if) it is ever printed it is rare indeed that it comes off an actual printing press but rather delivered by satellite to an electronic device.

Libraries have become repositories of older books.  On entering the “library” of a newly established medical school, I naively inquired of the attendant where the books were.  His startled reply was illuminating:  There aren’t any books but any material required can be delivered from anywhere in the world with a half-dozen key strokes.  The e-reader (another neologism) has become ubiquitous, but while it is charming to carry a hundred books on your Kindle one does miss the heft and feel of a printed book in the hand.

The local newspapers have been bought up by conglomerates.  No less a luminary than Warren Buffet owns The Roanoke Times and other regional papers.  Printing is now centralized in Lynchburg and our once fabulous supersonic printing press is standing idle.  Local papers are covering local events and news since everyone has heard the national/international news ad nauseuam the day before.  Perhaps the prevalence of local events will be enough to insure survival of the local papers.

The Roanoke Star has had a remarkable ten year run but it has not been immune to the pressures mentioned above.  After five years the weekly hard copy was cut back to bi-monthly and then two years later it became a monthly as the daily updated online presence increased.  It seems clear that it (and the majority of all print media) will eventually convert to a purely online format and those who enjoy the sound of shaking the wrinkles out of the folded news page will have to think back to the halcyon days of the printed editions.

We can be grateful for the ascendance of the cyber world, but like all progress, it comes with unintended consequences.  Think about all the social media and the pirating of private information.  It’s enough to make your average curmudgeon tip your hat to Gutenberg as the printing press slides over the horizon.

Hayden Hollingsworth