Not long ago, I stopped by the Morgan Library, in Manhattan, to pay a visit to the Gutenberg Bible on display within a cube of glass in the Morgan’s towering East Room. Gutenberg Bibles are among the rarest of printed books—about 50 copies are scattered around the world. At the time of their production, in Mainz in the 1450s, Gutenberg Bibles were of course the most common printed books—they were among the only ones. If a Gutenberg Bible were to come on the market today, it would sell for as much as $35 million, according to some estimates. But who knows? Sheikhs and oligarchs might launch a bidding war. The Morgan has three Gutenbergs. The copy on display was bought by J. P. Morgan in 1911 at Sotheby’s, which was acting for the family of a Wiltshire banker, who had bought it from the British bookseller Bernard Quaritch, who had bought it from the family of a Middlesex brewer, who had bought it from a member of the aristocratic Sykes family, who in 1824 had sold off his brother’s famed library in order to buy hunting dogs. The Sykes copy can be traced to a Scottish monk, antiquarian, and spy who lived in Germany in the late 18th century, and it is probably the copy that was lodged for centuries in the Augustinian monastery at Rebdorf.
I know all of this because of a remarkable (and hefty) recent study titled Editio Princeps—the book that prompted my visit to the Morgan. The author, Eric White, the curator of rare books at Princeton, has composed meticulous biographies of each of the complete Gutenberg Bibles that have come down to us. Many have led picaresque lives. Harvard’s copy was briefly stolen, in 1969, by a troubled young man who smashed its glass encasement, took the book, climbed out a window, and knocked himself unconscious when he fell to the ground; charges were dismissed on grounds of mental illness, and the thief went on to become an adult-film star. White tells the story of Johannes Gutenberg himself—how the goldsmith and maker of religious mementos for the pilgrimage trade combined the idea of metallic movable type (his true innovation, though it had antecedents) with a wooden press (like the kind used for making wine) to produce a printed page. The practice of copying books by hand did not immediately disappear, but the new technology spread fast. Venice, with its dense cluster of print shops, played the role of Silicon Valley. The printing press would soon upend the social order in ways that no one had anticipated and that few today give much thought to.
The comparison of the printing industry in Venice to the tech industry in Silicon Valley is not Eric White’s. It was made in 2005, by a historian of the printed word named Elizabeth Eisenstein, in the afterword to The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, an abridged edition of her monumental The Printing Press as an Agent of Change. Eisenstein’s original two-volume study was published in 1979, before personal computers and the internet began to work their will, but she was well aware of subsequent developments.
Eisenstein, who died in 2016 at the age of 92, was sharp, elegant, funny, and determined. She had picked up tennis late, at age 50; playing in the senior division, she won more than 30 national championships, the last when she was in her 90s. Breaking into academe as a woman in the 1950s had not been easy, but her work on the impact of the printing press, published in her sixth decade, proved to be another senior-division win. Many historians had written about Gutenberg and noted the role the printing press played in fostering the Reformation. But no one had mounted a vigorous investigation of the invention’s broader long-term consequences. Betty was 80 when I met her. Over several dinner conversations, she spoke at length about the printing press—the manifest good that it had done, in terms of spreading and “fixing” knowledge, but also the massive disruption it had caused. Disruption was the actual word she used. She didn’t mean it in a self-congratulatory, tech-mogul sort of way.
The printing press took most people by surprise—it wasn’t a technology that everyone had been dreaming about for centuries, like flying machines—and its ramifications were dramatic. Printing gave rise to a “start-up” culture (again, Eisenstein’s term): Many printing shops failed, but many didn’t. Within a few decades, at least one printing press could be found in every sizable community—not just the Romes and the Londons, but also the Augsburgs and the Erfurts and the Modenas. The cost of entry was low. More books were printed in the five decades after Gutenberg’s invention than had been produced by scribes during the previous 1,000 years.
The printing press decentralized the role of gatekeeper. In a scribal culture, maintaining some measure of control over ideas and their dissemination was straightforward. In a printing-press culture, control was harder. Within their own jurisdictions, rulers tried anyway, and so did the Church. The word imprimatur is Latin for “Let it be printed”—it connoted official sanction. But more people had greater opportunities for public expression than ever before. Thwarted in Heidelberg, you could try Geneva or Utrecht.
The sheer number of books that printers produced made suppression problematic. Having your book land on someone’s watch list could even turn it into a best seller: Banned in Bologna! And words weren’t the only things that came off the press; mass-produced images, in the form of woodblock prints, shaped opinion even among the illiterate. Printing was referred to as a “divine art,” and the masters of this technology, in aprons rather than hoodies, could sometimes be a little full of themselves.
When people can publish whatever they want, they do. The printing press made individual books more uniform and more numerous, but it also put the idea of universal truth up for grabs. Martin Luther’s challenge to Catholic orthodoxy was, of course, powered by the printing press. Previous challenges had burned themselves out, like pathogens in the jungle. The printing press changed all that. Luther posted his famous 95 theses in 1517; within three years, his printed works had sold some 300,000 copies. In Renaissance terms, this was the equivalent of cat videos. Unlike monastic scribes, animated by the one true way, printers were profit-seeking entrepreneurs. They published whatever would sell. Before long, you could find anything in a printed book—conspiracy theories, magic spells, recipes, satire, erotica. You could find support for any point of view. You could just make something up and set it in type, and people would say, I read it in a book.
Eisenstein described much of this in her writings. Her larger point is that the world was never the same again. As she explained to me, we no longer register the impact of the printing press because we have no easy way to retrieve the ambient sensation of “before,” just as we can’t retrieve, and can barely imagine, what life was like when only scattered licks of flame could pierce the darkness of night. At first glance, printing seems like just a more efficient way of doing what people were doing anyway: making words and images available to others. But it was a revolution—many revolutions, really, most of them unforeseeable. Consider what it meant to own books personally and read them silently, rather than having to hear words read aloud: No one knew what you were up to in the privacy of your home. Writers and publishers wanted some degree of ownership—hence the new concepts of copyright and intellectual property. More books and rising literacy created an eyeglass industry, which in turn brought advances in lens-making, which ultimately made possible the telescope and spelled the end of biblical cosmology. The printing press transformed religion, science, politics; it put information, misinformation, and power in the hands of more people than ever before; it created a celebrity culture as poets and polemicists vied for fame; and it loosened the restraints of authority and hierarchy, setting groups against one another. This shattered the status quo in ways that proved liberating but also lethal: If the printing press deserves some of the credit for democracy and the Enlightenment, it also deserves some of the blame for chaos and slaughter. As Edward Snowden observes in his new book, Permanent Record: “Technology doesn’t have a Hippocratic oath.”
Drawing technological parallels is a dicey enterprise. It requires ample use of that said, to be sure, and as it were. And Eisenstein wasn’t harping on parallels. She wrote her books (and spoke with me) before Facebook and Twitter; before Russian hacking, Alex Jones, and Stuxnet. She had an eye on the internet but admitted that, when she first published her book on the printing press, the ascendant technology that drew her attention was the photocopier. She described a Xerox commercial from the late 1970s featuring a weary scribe named Brother Dominic, who is tasked with making 500 copies of an illuminated manuscript. He turns for salvation to a copying machine. “It’s a miracle,” his superior says, casting his eyes heavenward, when Dominic returns shortly with perfect duplicates.
That said, drawing parallels is hard to resist. The Rand Corporation published an early paper about the printing press and the internet in 1998, when the public version of what was then called the “information superhighway” was only a few years old, and only about 20 million computers worldwide were linked to it. The study, by James Dewar, took note of several developments that “we are already seeing”—spam, trolls, viruses, and a variety of scams (like those get-rich schemes emanating from Nigeria)—and warned of a “dark side.” Dewar made a crucial distinction: between technologies, such as knives and microwave ovens, whose intended consequences far outweigh the unintended ones, and technologies, such as cars and air-conditioning, whose unintended consequences dwarf the intended ones. The study’s main message was that the internet, which originated as a form of military communication, was technology of the second kind. Its consequences would be “dominated” by the unforeseeable and the uncontrollable.
By a factor of about a zillion, more has been written about what the internet may have in store for us than about the wide-ranging effects of the printing press. We’re all aware of the digital utopians and dystopians, the prophets and fantasists. Experts issue warnings. Regulators advance reforms. Right now we’re in a doom phase: The internet threatens everything from jobs to privacy to free will. We should indeed be thinking about these things. A swelling legion of academic centers and private think tanks does nothing but. Novels such as Tim Maughan’s Infinite Detail and Robert Harris’s The Second Sleep stir the imagination. But as the example of Gutenberg’s invention suggests, it’s easy to forget how unforeseeable (and never-ending) the “unforeseeable” really is. When it comes to those who make predictions about the internet, the judgment of history is unlikely to be: They got it right.
Once, after listening to Betty Eisenstein lay out the wide array of unintended consequences of the printing press, whether mind-altering in a positive or catastrophic way, I made a remark along the lines of “And it took a mere 500 years for things to settle down.” She said, “Have they?”
This article appears in the January/February 2020 print edition with the headline “Before Zuckerberg, Gutenberg.”