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Book review: The Gutenberg Parenthesis
31 . 08 . 23

The Gutenberg Parenthesis: How print shaped society

Words by: Print Power
There are parallels between the pre-print era and our conversationally-charged digital age, reveals journalist, book author and media expert Jeff Jarvis in his new book The Gutenberg Parenthesis. In Part 2 of our series, Print Power MD Ulbe Jelluma talks to him exclusively about what this could mean for the rebirth of print and its role in modern culture…
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At a glance:

  • The internet has brought print to its highest level of attention-based media economy
  • As conversation replaces content, print titles should capitalise on the rise of community
  • How brands can build their credibility and trust in the age of data mining and AI
  • Mass will be replaced by print that has a higher value at a smaller level


Read Part 1 of our series: spotlight on Jeff Jarvis, The Gutenberg Parenthesis explained. Print Power MD Ulbe Jelluma reviews this fascinating book.

Ulbe Jelluma: You started your career in print and then I guess by 2000 you made the move to the internet?

Jeff Jarvis: Yes I began my journalism career in 1972 when I worked for a local weekly newspaper before going on to work for the Chicago Tribune, TV Guide and People Magazine and Entertainment Weekly, The Guardian, the New York Daily News and the San Francisco Examiner. I was president and creative director of Advance Internet until 2005 and later  took up the role of 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, directing its new media program. I created the weblog BuzzMachine which tracks developments in new media, I co-host a podcast called This Week in Google, and I’ve written a series of digital-focused books.

What my new book was going to be originally was a book about the death of mass media and how that has changed things. I'm not a sociologist, so I didn't feel qualified to write that book; it became a chapter in this book. I wanted to explore the creation of media and print with Gutenberg, and then the creation of mass media with the mechanisation and industrialisation of print in the 19th century, and then the death of mass media now.

How the mighty will fall

What has brought about the death of mass media?

I think mass media has its own parenthesis. The idea of the mass was a lie. It was a necessity of the medium. And I don't celebrate the death of print. In fact, at the end of the book and in one of my earlier books ‘What would Google do’? I argued that the book, as an institution, should be updateable and linkable and clickable and discussible. And in this book, I recant that and say, let books be books. I'm not trying to celebrate the death of paper or print. I don't think they die. I think they are superseded in our attention, but they live on in new ways. Some forms of print may die, for instance print newspapers may go away. 

I do celebrate the death of this idea of the mass because it’s fundamentally an insult to the public. It is a way not to hear people, not to listen to them, not to recognize their individuality, their communities, their identities or their humanity. It is a way to presume something about them. And we had to do that when we had high power printing presses that had to print the same product for everybody. We had to convince everybody that it was good for them. 

So as I said, I don't think I was chronicling the death of New Media, I think I was chronicling the last gasp of Old Media. Rather than thinking we have to sell huge products that are going to sell to everybody, I think we can sell products on a different scale to people who care more about them. I see an opportunity for print there. I think advertising and print can gain by standing out with new products presented in different ways and on a different scale.

There’s a theory by an Australian marketing professor Byron Sharp that you need to have mass communication, because if you address large groups of people who are beyond your core audience, you will always reach people who are potential consumers of your products. what you're saying is, we might not have mass communication in the long run?

Yes. And there's a paradox here in that Google is bigger than anything ever was in media, but it’s through its size that it treats me as an individual. Whereas my newspaper still does not know me as an individual. The newspaper serves me the same thing it serves everyone else, and that's part of the ethos of the newsroom. When I've been in newsrooms like The Guardian and talk about personalisation, the editors get mad at me. They say the value is the news judgement for the whole public and the shared experience and so on. 

I have the American Newspaper Directory of 1900. And if you go to the New York City section, there was the Textile Manufacturer's Journal, Tobacco Leaf, Town Topics, Trade Record, Truth Seeker - I could go on. These publications were at the beginning of mass, but they weren't. One of the favourite little factoids I found in researching The Gutenberg Parentheses was that before the mechanisation and industrialisation of print with the steam-powered press, stereotyping, linotype, and wood pulp paper, the average circulation of a daily newspaper in the United States was 4,000. It was a good size Substack newsletter. And so I think we resize around that. I think Byron Sharp is right to some extent. If you want to introduce a new product and don't know who your customers are and don't have them yet, some form of mass media is the best thing you have. But I think the reality is, it's going away. It’s not just print, in the United States, terrestrial radio is all but dead, replaced by podcasts and satellite. And linear television, mass television, is dying rapidly. 

And of course, they do play with retargeting. All of the fear around privacy, especially in Europe, and especially in Germany, will perhaps change some of that. It will probably become a little more mass again because targeting is going to be more difficult. But still, the advertisers are going to have to figure out targeting. Once they have a customer, then it's about relationships. It's no longer about messages, in my view. And that, to me, is a big change as well. 

"When print was new, it created a new environment called the public. There had never been a public before"
Marshall McLuhan
Author of Understanding Media

But magazines - typically the print editions - can address specific segments and can target smaller groups of people.

I think they’ve missed an opportunity. One of my contentions in The Gutenberg Parenthesis is that what scholars like Thomas Pettitt (Professor at the South Denmark University who with two colleagues there coined the term The Gutenberg Parenthesis) say: that the end of the Parenthesis marks a return to a conversationally based society. Before print, words were passed around mouth to mouth. Things changed along the way. There was  little sense of ownership and authorship. 

After Gutenberg’s Parenthesis, knowledge is again passed around mouth to mouth, click to click. It changes along the way. There's less of a sense of ownership and authorship. We fight about copyright. We, unfortunately, don't honour the experts any more. We honour the network and everyone who can speak. 

Magazines had the opportunity to own the sense of community on the Internet. Instead, they saw themselves as manufacturers of a product called ‘content’ and thought that their voice was the only voice that mattered. I worked at Condé Nast for 11 years, and there was one executive of the New Yorker who got it. She said: The New Yorker is this tower. And we have the opportunity to open the windows all around and enable everyone to talk directly with each other. I think most magazines could not see that opportunity. They were almost autocratic institutions of the editor: ‘I decide what to put in the magazine. I control the experience. You will go through the pages in the order that I tell you.’ 

Magazines could have started Twitter. They could have started Facebook, but somebody else did before them because they mis-defined themselves. They didn't see themselves as community companies. They saw themselves as content companies. And that's a mistake. As advertising goes programmatic and as environment is commodified, publishers suffer from that. I advocate for is the membership model over the subscription model. If you're the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal—which together get two-thirds of news subscriptions in the US—then I agree: have a subscription. But if you're the crappy local paper I have here, it ain't worth paying for, a membership is different. Membership says, ‘I belong to something, and I want access to something besides just content.’

Building brand trust in the age of AI

Will print continue to be the authoritative voice? 

The Gutenberg Parenthesis starts by explaining the theory: that as we leave it, we have lessons to learn from the age of print. I then examine on the birth of print, its development, spread, and impact. In the second half, I try to apply the lessons that I see there for society today. One overarching lesson is about authority and institutions. Looking back, in the early days,  print was not seen as reliable, or as authoritative. It was less trusted than rumour.

The first call for censorship of print is alleged to have come in 1470, when Niccolò Perotti in Italy was upset by a bad translation of Pliny. He wrote to the Pope, beseeching him to appoint a censor for the press. We don't know whether the Pope replied. I realised as I thought about this, that what Perotti was asking for was not a censor at all. He was anticipating the arrival of the institutions of editing and publishing, which would assure quality and authority. Those institutions are inadequate to the scale of speech today and so we need new institutions.

"It took a century and a half to invent the institution of the newspaper to begin to establish credibility in contemporary, informational print. What new institutions must we invent today to build credibility online?
Jeff Jarvis
Author of The Gutenberg Parenthesis

The current media brands can't fulfil that role?

I think new institutions will be created because that need is great. I’ve included a timeline of the Gutenberg years inside the parenthesis. In about 1450, he's working on the Bibles. The book as we know it doesn't really take shape until 1500 - the end of the incunabula period or infant age of print - when title pages, page numbers, indexes, and so on appear. 

It wasn't until around 1600 that we saw a wave of innovation with print: the invention of the modern novel with Miguel de Cervantes, the invention of the essay with Michel Montaigne, the invention of the newspaper, the creation of a market for printed plays with Shakespeare. It took a century and a half for the technology to become boring. A business model for print didn't arrive until 1710 with the Statute of Anne, the copyright act that led to  the idea of content as property. The technology of print didn't change substantially until after 1800, with the steel press, stereotyping cheap paper made from wood pulp produced paper, steam-powered presses, and  finally, my favourite machine, the Linotype, at the end of the century. 

Then came  print’s first competitor in the 1920s: radio. Then TV in the mid century. And here we are today. We're a bit more than a quarter century past the introduction of the commercial browser in the mid 1990s. That puts us at about 1480 in Gutenberg years. All of which is to say that I think from the print perspective, there is an opening to be a voice of authority and to await the same waves of innovation that occurred with print in the 1600s. 

We still aww the future in the analogue of the past. You can still recognize books, magazines, and newspapers online as books, magazines, and newspapers online. We really haven't started to reinvent what they could be instead yet. We even use ChatGPT to try to recreate what we already have. I think there's a window here where print, especially with the rise of ChatGPT, does hold more authority than digital until new institutions are created that deal with the challenges of finding authority and reliability in abundant speech. 

I celebrate the fact that we now hear voices who weren't heard and represented in mainstream mass media run by people who look like me, old, white men. If I were talking to the print industry and paper manufacturers, I would push them hard towards innovating. 

There's a huge mistrust of companies, government and media. So who can you trust these days?

Medieval society relied on a concept called fama? It's Latin for ‘it is said’. Fama was about recognizing the authority of the fact or the story and also of the teller. And it was incumbent upon the listener to judge. Does he know what he's talking about? Or has he blown things up a bit? That's his reputation. 

Right now, as it was before print existed, It becomes incumbent upon every individual to make their own judgments. However, we're inadequate to that task. There's too much information and we don't know who's authoritative. Now, my answer to that, as a teacher, would be education.

I think in the long run, we'll create services that will help people to do this. Everybody screams about the algorithms of Facebook or Twitter. On Mastodon, there are no algorithms. On Bluesky, which was started by Jack Dorsey when he was at Twitter, you can pick your own algorithm. So what if a new enterprise comes along and says, ‘I'm going to find the good people for you. I'm going to find the smart people or the educated people or the scientists who know what they're talking about and I will make that a service.’

"As with print, I will bet that the internet and its technologists will become less important, even boring and passé. What is far more interesting is what people do with technology: what new forms of creativity may emerge.."
Jeff Jarvis
Author of The Gutenberg Parenthesis

Print and digital: the future 


What is the name of the era we're entering now? 

I think it's a digital era. 

So, Jeff, where will we be in 10 years in terms of media channels?

I argue in The Gutenberg Parenthesis we will become more and more conversational, for good and bad. I think that AI Large Language Models’ entrance is fascinating for a lot of reasons. But what I see with generative AI is that it commodifies content. It commodifies writing. What is going to happen with generative AI is that it completely devalues text. So I think that we're going to value relationships and conversation and community more than content. 

Even as a writer, I think it's not necessarily a bad thing that I am commodified because what interests me about generative AI is that it enables people who've been scared of writing to be able to write, to tell their stories, to illustrate those stories. And I think what the internet has done is enabled voices who were for too long not heard to finally be heard. 

What should motivate the people who read the interview with you to buy your book?

It's a book about books, a book about print, a book about that entire half millennial era of society. I have a passion and a love for print that will come through in the book. And that alone should be of interest. But the important thing is to learn the lessons about how we adapt now. And as we now leave this era, what were the lessons we can take from it as we enter a new age? Those are lessons about content, conversation, copyright, control of speech, mass versus community, and institutions that need to change or be replaced.  

Printing is called ‘the preservative of all arts,’ and so there is an affection for it. I'm not killing print. I'm not killing books, I'm not killing magazines. This is not a eulogy or an obituary for it. It is instead an effort to value what we've learned through print and how we can use that wherever appropriate.