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31 . 08 . 23

Book review: The Gutenberg Parenthesis

Words by: Print Power
From the invention of the Gutenberg Press in the 15th century to the digital era of the present, a new book by media expert Jeff Jarvis examines how 500 years of print culture shaped society and the lessons we can learn for the age to come. Print Power’s Ulbe Jelluma gives his take on this compelling tome…
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Read Part 2 of our series: Print Power MD Ulbe Jelluma’s exclusive interview with Jeff Jarvis

Is the emerging digital society a continuation of what is sometimes called the printing-centred society, or do the two exist next to each other?

Communication scientists and sociologists refer to the printing-centred society as the Gutenberg period. Gutenberg was at the origin of this transformative technology. A new book from Professor Jeff Jarvis refers to this period as being an intermezzo in the evolution of how we communicate with each other. He prefers to use the term the Gutenberg Parenthesis.

After a restful holiday period we present a thought-provoking concept via a book review and an interview with the journalist turned professor who became first known as the originator of ‘Dell hell’.

Who is Jeff Jarvis?

Jeff Jarvis is an American journalist, book author and media expert who argues the personal and social benefits of the internet. He is the Leonard Tow Professor of Journalism Innovation and director of the Tow-Knight Centre for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York. He began his journalism career in 1972 when he worked for a local weekly newspaper before going on to work for the Chicago Tribune, TV Guide and People Magazine and Entertainment Weekly.

He has also been a media columnist at The Guardian, Associate Publisher and Sunday Editor at the New York Daily News, and columnist and editor at the San Francisco Examiner. He is the author of numerous books. In 2012, he published the Kindle single Gutenberg the Geek, describing Johannes Gutenberg as ‘the world's first technology entrepreneur’. His new book, The Gutenberg Parenthesis: The age of print and its lessons for the age of the internet by Jeff Jarvis is published by Bloomsbury Academic, £20.

"Printing links the present with forever"
Neil Postman
Author of Amusing ourselves to death

What isThe Gutenberg Parenthesis’?

Just as a parenthesis form brackets or a pause in text, so the Gutenberg Parenthesis is a term that implies a period or interlude in history where world view was shaped by the printed word.

Before the invention of the influential and ground-breaking technology that powered the Gutenberg Press, society would communicate through music, speech and language. Ideas spread through conversations and word of mouth. A time when ideas were fluid and debate flourished. Then written language constructed ideas into book format which held little sway over ordinary people as they were a luxury that only the literate or privileged were privy to.

The invention of the printing press was the beginning of the ‘parenthesis’ – a turning point for communication and the shaping of ideas.

As printing took off on an industrial scale in the 19th century, it had unforeseen consequences. The rigid format of books where words were regimented into lines and paragraphs and surrounded by margins, meaning that words were more confined and had lost their oral fluidity. And the need for a structured beginning, middle and end meant that already, information was being organised, constructed and categorised.

The previous era of oral communications was now being labelled one of rumour and gossip, whereas print was now being held in great esteem and was commonly thought of as trusted and true.

 However, the invention of print and its subsequent spread, evolution and censorship gave birth to the containment of debate and free speech. Steam, mechanised and industrialised production replaced the art form of the printing press. Media became mass and the industry was transformed by scale.

In this atmosphere, voices were drowned out by mass media, but then came the digital revolution and the dominance of the internet. While digital has spread misinformation due to its lack of fact checking, on the flip side it has given voices to those who otherwise might not have been heard.


The Gutenberg Parenthesis in review: how can print thrive in the second age of orality?

‘The book presents a sociological and historic perspective on the impact of the printing press on society and the way people interact. This is a period that is defined by the overarching impact of print. The Gutenberg era, in a wider perspective, could be seen as an interruption of the way people deal with technology. This explains the term Gutenberg Parenthesis, as it is an intermezzo.

The book is not a celebration of the new digital era, but reminds us of the societal impact or revolution of the printing press and how that and digital technology has and will improve the world.

Jarvis focuses on what happened to conversation between people. Before the printing press, talking with each other or songs were the way to exchange information, to pass on stories.

Print as social interaction

At the start of the Gutenberg Parenthesis, conversations continued, albeit increasingly in a print form. In the early days of the printing press that coincided with the Reformation (1517), print was used to interact. As an example, Jarvis mentions Thomas More’s book Utopia, an answer to Erasmus’ book Praise of Folly. The book itself was a dialogue between the writer and his printer and other people involved in the correspondence. The book was ‘an incident’ in a long discussion. They had a conversation in print in front of an audience - the public. And a considerable audience too, as six million copies of pamphlets as well as millions of hymnals were printed.

Printing became the expression of freedom and advanced knowledge, although the Catholic Church tried to limit this by establishing a list of Forbidden Books. Editors and publishers created networks of correspondents, solicited criticism, and mentioned names of people that spotted errors in books or maps. A knowledge explosion followed in the 16th century.

One of the many consequences of print was the change in education: students could now read silently, rather than being read to. Book-learning would replace apprenticeships and would become the focus of daily activities. Text began to take authority as print became a way of storing and preserving knowledge.

This was the beginning of the parenthesis, the transition of speech to writing. Written culture via manuals replaced oral culture taught via apprenticeships  and the wise old men and women. Print created a new sense of private ownership of words and by using typography the word became a commodity.

The mighty mass

The advent of the mechanised, electrified and industrialised media brought an end to this conversation with the public and the birth of a new concept: the mass. Jarvis states that the mass, as an audience, is the child and the creation of media. Once the production of print was industrialised, the same content could be offered to anyone. Mass became the defining business model during the pre-internet period. Everything and everybody is commodified.

Understanding how man interacted with print helps us to understand how we can interact with and what we can do with the new technology called internet. As Jarvis phrases: ‘Without deliberate study of print and its consequences, present-day society would be ill -equipped to understand the transition away from the dominance of text and into what follows.’

We’re now living the post-typographic era, which leads to a new age of secondary orality, a return to the period before the Gutenberg Parenthesis. Some say the parenthesis closed with the venue of the electric wire, others with the network cable. Others say the end of the age of typography and the beginning of the age of television marked the start of a new era.

Many of our current concerns with the internet are similar to what was experienced when the printing press appeared; misinformation, fake news, hate speech, scandals, fear. Coffeehouses and salons, places where one could read, share and discuss news, were seen as addressing a new public - men who didn’t necessarily know each other. It could be seen as the birth of social media, a place for public conversation.


"The old medium is always the solution to the problems of the old medium says the new medium is causing"
Jeff Jarvis
Author of The Gutenberg Parenthesis

The rise of individualism

However, today mass (= scale) is proven to be a myth, the internet is killing the mass audience and mass media. Internet knows every individual and can reach out to every single person. That could imply the revival of individualism. This post-mass media internet can accommodate many communities and public groups that can gather, converse and act among themselves and in concert with others.

His theory is that we should beware of romanticising the press as it has simplified debate, erased nuance and pitted people against one another, creating division. He believes that instead of seeing the digital age as a blight, we should see its influence as the saviour of print as it will free up not just conversation and ideas, but the printed word too.

Industries go through what could be called creative destruction - the music industry for example. It was the first to be hit by the net. Today it has become a flourishing industry, the number of album releases has exploded and Spotify streams go north of 1 billion for a single song. Proving the point made in the book about the use of the printing press: countries that failed to take advantage of the printing press fell behind in Europe.

One of the lessons given by Jarvis is: ‘As we begin to leave the Gutenberg’s Parenthesis - a journey that itself might stretch out generations ahead - and venture into the unknown and unsure future to follow, we have the blessing, the gift, of the history of books and of our transition into the Parenthesis to learn from’.

Ultimately, what I like about the book is the time perspective between the development of print and the start of digital. This is the first book I have read that suggests a theory behind the evolution of the oral community to the written word and comes full circle again to the oral/written. It doesn’t give a deterministic view of what is happening with technology, and it rightfully points to a number of analogies between the early days of print and the present day digital. The book provides a timeline and a historic framework that’s useful in trying to understand current media developments.

Media’s renaissance

Jarvis is optimistic about the new phase, the new revolution, and suggests we should explore the upside of this new technology instead of protecting us against the downside. One of the phrases that touched me was his quest for connectivity for every individual: ‘I wish for the means for people to find that they are not alone, that they belong, that they have connections with communities and their support’.

And as the printing press took about 60-80 years to become a well-developed industry, it might also take the digital technology that same time to go through different growth pains and hiccups. And as Jarvis says: ‘Print and print culture will not die’."


Ulbe Jelluma