The iPad arrives today in stores, and on the eve of its public emergence Mike Sussman riffs on the historical and contemporary meaning of Gutenberg and his epoch-shifting press.
Technophiles have often oversold the effects of such innovations. (Remember how information technology was thought in the 1990s to have smoothed out the business cycle?) But sometimes technology does contribute to profound social change. The eclipse of scribal manuscripts by the printed book coincided with — and arguably contributed to — tremendous changes in society. Could the possible eclipse of print by digital communications also lead to an epochal societal shift?
Such questions have played out in the field of Gutenberg studies at least since the time of Marshall McLuhan. In “The Gutenberg Galaxy” (1962), McLuhan attributed most of the qualities of modernity to the effects of the printing press — or more specifically, and more quirkily, to the way typographic text reoriented our senses from the aural to the visual.