Monday, February 13, 2012

From Print to Screen

And now for the 4th of the 4 part series consisting of my lecture notes for my Fordham University online course on Writing for Online Media that I'm teaching this semester.  The notes, which are meant to be read in lieu of listening to me lecture in class, are intended to put online writing into a larger historical, and media ecological context through an overview on the history of writing.  If you want to read them in order, begin with  Orality and Online Writing, from there proceed to Reading, Writing, and Rearranging, and then on to Scribes and Scribbles, and then meet me back here for the final installment.  Okay, ready now class? Once more, unto the breach, or something like that...

Comments on the History of Writing Part IV: 
The Print Revolution 

The practice of printing has its roots in prehistory, as for example a shell could be used to make essentially identical imprints on a surface over and over again. An important early from of printing came not long after the introduction of the Greek alphabet, in the neighboring kingdom of Lydia, where the first coins were minted. Printing on paper was invented in China long before Gutenberg, and printing images carved from wood blocks was a common practice in Europe for centuries. 

The big breakthrough came in the 15th century when there were, reportedly, 7 different individuals working in 7 different cities in Germany to develop a method of automating the copying of books and documents. Demand had risen steadily after the introduction of paper in Europe, which was associated with the commercial revolution that led to the Renaissance in Italy. New paints used by Renaissance painters became the basis of a new kind of ink used in printing, which was necessary because innovations in metallurgy made it possible to create metal type. The Chinese had long ago developed a printing press with moveable type, but the type was made out of wood, and therefore not very durable, plus they didn't have the alphabet, which meant that they had to have a great many different blocks to rearrange, whereas we only needed a relatively limited number (less than 100, when counting upper and lower case, numerals, and punctuation marks). 

The press part of the printing press was adapted from the wine press, and Gutenberg gets the credit, although there are competing claims, and no one knows exactly when it was introduced, because no one kept track of these things until after printing was invented. But we do know that the 1450s was the beginning of a revolution in printing that swept through Europe, and elsewhere, and gave us the modern world. The introduction of printing is associated with the rise of nationalism, individualism, democracy, modern science, and the Protestant Reformation, to name a few major developments. 

McLuhan noted that printing was the first mechanization of a handicraft, and in this way opened the door to mechanization and eventually industrialization. Printing made the production of books and other documents into a real business, so that authors took credit for their work, whereas they didn't bother in manuscript culture, and eventually copyright legislation was created to protect printers from piracy on the part of their rivals (this was the introduction of the concept of intellectual property, something not physical like an object, or real estate; patent and trademark law followed this model). 

Printing made widespread publicity possible, publicity meaning to make public, and in fact printing led to the creation of a reading public, along with what was called a republic of letters. Advertising was a byproduct of printing, and the title pages of books originated as an advertisement for the printer, so that to this day you see the name of the publisher listed there. 

Printing introduced the idea of mass production, and for the first time books and other written materials were produced in multiple, identical copies. With the same material appearing on the same page in every copy, creating a table of contents and an index became worthwhile, and even page numbers were not typical of hand-copied manuscripts. 

Standardization spread to other aspects of writing, including spelling and grammar (there was no "correct" spelling or grammar before typography). Also the use of alphabetic order became commonplace, along with the printing of reference works such as dictionaries, and encyclopedias. 

Perhaps most important of all, the printed text became fixed, unchangeable, closed in this sense, as compared to the manuscript which could be altered from one copy to the next. This served to eliminate "scribal corruption" but could also broadcast errors, a famous early example being what became known as the "wicked bible," where the word not was omitted from the 7th commandment, "thou shalt not commit adultery." 

Typographic fixity and closure is in many ways reversed by electronic writing, where edits, changes, and updates to the text are easily made. The main problem with citing Wikipedia is not that the information can't be trusted, it's been shown to be fairly accurate, but rather that the page you cite can be changed soon after you cite it, and changed many times over, so that there is no way to go back and check on your citation with assurance that it's the same document. 

In medieval Europe, most manuscripts were written in Latin, a dead or learned language, so to be able to read you had to learn to read and then also learn Latin, and then possibly Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic as well. Very few works were written in the vernacular. Printers, looking to expand their market, began to publish in the vernacular, fueling rising literacy rates, and also the new cultural trend of nationalism that went hand in hand with the establishment of the nation-state in early modern Europe. 

The first printed books were made to look like handwritten manuscripts, that's all they knew after all, but eventually they moved from calligraphic types of fonts, e.g., gothic lettering, to more readable typefaces, which also made it easier to read, and to read quickly. Silent reading was all but unknown before printing, but afterwards became commonplace, and reading and writing became increasingly more divorced from the acoustic world, often to the detriment of good writing. 

As printing moved past its earliest stages, printers began to pay attention to the look of the page, the layout, as printing has been characterized as producing the exactly repeatable pictorial statement. While manuscripts might be decorated as artworks, and calligraphy could be quite beautiful, writing by hand makes it difficult to plan and edit layout and design of pages, whereas this becomes a new feature of the production of print media. 

And not long after the introduction of typography, engraving using metal plates instead of wood carvings led to a revolution in the printed image. Along with images, diagrams and tables became feasible, as they were previously difficult to copy without error by hand. Printing made the visual display of data commonplace, the outline as the most basic example, and as an outgrowth of that, the textbook. 

Printing introduced a variety of new forms. Prose became commonplace, including essays. A new category called fiction was introduced, for a new idea, writing that claims to have no relationship to any person or event in reality (although one of the key criteria for evaluating fiction became realism). The main form of fiction, the novel was introduced (many refer to Cervantes's Don Quixote as the first of that new form), and also the short story. Printers produced many other media aside from books, such as catalogs, calendars, blank forms, pamphlets, broadsheets, etc., and eventually developed the notion of the periodical, i.e., newspapers and magazines, print media published regularly in serial format. 

During the 19th and 20th centuries, a variety of innovations contributed to the evolution of printing, especially the introduction of steam power (printers mainly worked the press by hand previously) in the early 19th century which vastly increased our ability to mass produce print media, along with many innovations in printing images, including photographs, and including the addition of color. What might be called the Age of Gutenberg, which is to say the modern age, lasted over 5 centuries, and shaped many of our assumptions about writing and publishing. 

Even the addition of the telegraph, while providing reports to be published in newspapers, led to a breakdown in linearity, so that newspaper articles began to use the pyramid structure, with the most important information in the first paragraph, the second most important in the second paragraph, etc., rather than telling the story from beginning to middle to end. With the speed-up of reporting, information coming in instantaneously over the wires, newspaper front pages began to look like what McLuhan referred to as mosaics, nonlinear bits and pieces of items, many continued on another page. There is no way to read the newspaper from beginning to middle to end (if you start reading one column, and the story is continued on another page, do you go to that page, or continue to the next column?). Look at the newspaper front page, and you see the predecessor of the typical website layout. Just this background addition of electronic communication changed things dramatically. 

Electronic writing, and especially writing for online media, extend some aspects of typography, the reach of publicity for example, and concern with layout. Relatively recent shifts towards the newspaper's mosaic, use of headlines, short paragraphs and sentences, also can be seen in online writing. But the new medium reverses other aspects of online writing, favoring a more "oral" sensibility, but with a new twist of being conversational and personal, rather than formal and formulaic. And it retrieves elements of scribal culture such as variation, what we would call plagiarism, collaboration, etc., and even scrolling from the ancient world. And it introduces entirely new elements too, such as the hyperlink.


Jean-François Vallée said...

I was just preparing for my own course on the print revolution! Thanks for the inspiration.
Here are some potentially interesting links.
1- An atlas documenting the spread of European print technology:
2- Some videos on making books from the manuscript to the modern industrial process:

Nick Leshi said...

Wonderful series of posts. Thanks for sharing.

Lance Strate said...

Thanks Nick, and Jean-Françoism abd U did see those videos, but thought they were a bit too detailed and too long to require my online writing class to view.

Erica said...

Thanks for sharing this post, truly interesting to read!
You provided a lot of useful data I was glad to learn.