Last week, I closed with a mention to the invention of moveable type as a devastating technology. And it was. It was the beginning of true mass media. Quoting from Wikipedia:
"Compared to woodblock printing, movable type pagesetting was quicker and more durable for alphabetic scripts. The metal type pieces were more durable and the lettering was more uniform, leading to typography and fonts. The high quality and relatively low price of the Gutenberg Bible (1455) established the superiority of movable type, and printing presses rapidly spread across Europe, leading up to the Renaissance, and later all around the world. Today, practically all movable type printing ultimately derives from Gutenberg's movable type printing, which is often regarded as the most important invention of the second millennium."
So I'm not the only one who thinks so.
Moveable type made it possible for the middle class to afford to own a library. In fact, a personal library up until the 19th century was regarded as a financial asset. The availability of literature increased literacy and access to universities and began a steady breakdown of class separation. It was also the beginning of the concept that knowledge and information should be relatively cheap, if not free altogether.
Here's where we start seeing some real parallels with our current situation.
Yes, the invention of the printing press brought a new level of wealth to many people and changed social structure dramatically. However, Gutenberg died broke. He didn't make any fortune with his invention and very few of the people who followed him did. Printing was a sideline business that helped increase power and influence, but it didn't do much for the people that controlled the technology. Printers were able to make ends meet, and actually make a profit when they started getting government contracts. They owned the medium, but the government footed the bill. That made a clean break from the church as a controller of media. In fact, the church started to look at media as something demonic about that time and preferred to have little to do with it.
Like today, you had competent communicators and rank amateurs filling sheets of paper with content, but also like today, no one could actually make money without some sort of direct subsidy that would make the monthly nut. It would actually take 300 years for someone to figure out how to actually make money in the media without government involvement or sponsorship. Of course, it would have to be Benjamin Franklin.
I started this blog site with an introduction to modern media as founded by Franklin and the Philadelphia Gazette. Now I've come back to him. Franklin made The Gazette the first publication primarily supported by advertising. Other publications in Europe and North America had tried advertising, but it didn't pay the bills. Subscriptions did. But Franklin filled the publication with ads and derived enough income that he could sell the paper cheaply on the streets and increase circulation. It was a revolutionary moment in media and started the paradigm we have all been used to. But it was still a long way from being an "objective" medium. We will pick that thread up next week.