84. How Did The Printing Press Change The World?

Before the internet taught us anything we wanted to know with the click of a button, information was hard to come by. In fact, before computers and even books, people had to rely on authority figures to acquire knowledge. But the printing press changed all that and decentralized information, making it accessible to anyone who could read.

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Here’s a transcript of our conversation:

Connor: Hey, Brittany.

Brittany: Hey, Connor.

Connor: So I’m fired up about today’s topic. You and I were, chatting a little bit before we recorded. This is a really fun topic, talking about the power of the printing press. Yes. This amazing device, this invention, this almost revolution, that changed the world. You know, we’ve talked a lot, on this podcast about, you know, questioning authority, thinking critically, studying things to, you know, learn things for yourself. But there was a time when this wasn’t as possible. for a lot of people it was impossible, you know, long ago before we had, you know, the internet, certainly, but even books, people got their information from, you know, authority figures, especially this was the case in a religious sense, right? People would only know what they believed based on what they were taught by the people in charge. And so not everyone had access to, in that case, the Bible, right? They couldn’t access it. They just went to church. And, you know, the church officials would read. And so people couldn’t access information themselves. It wasn’t affordable, right? You’d have scribes copying things by hand, so only the wealthy would have access to this information. It was very limited, right? Because, you’d have to, you know, scribes can only write so quickly. it would be very error-prone, right? Because when scribes are copying things, it can often make mistakes. And so then comes Johannes Gutenberg, and he invents the printing press. And so here, for the first time in, in the history of mankind, information became, you know, accessible to the masses. It was cheaper. There were less errors, right? Because you would get one little, print run and run the paper over and over and over again. And so you’d get kind of replicas of the same exact thing. So the information was now available not just to people with power and money, but to the masses. And so I wanna talk with you about how profoundly this changed the world. How human civilization was just totally impacted by this invention that then started spreading around like crazy. So why is it in your mind, Brittany, that the printing press was such like a significant step forward for human civilization?

Brittany: Yeah. Well, I think both of you, and I as writers could say how great it is, right? Because nobody would care about us if no one had access to reading anything you wrote, right? But for me, the biggest key here is it was the decentralization of knowledge. And let’s kind of dissect what that means. So centralized means like one core, you know, body of authority, right? A king would be a centralized leader. A president is kind of a centralized leader. but information used to be centralized when only a priest had it, or only, you know, a king had it. But now you, you got rid of that with a printing press. You’re disseminating, you’re spreading this information all across the globe. So now everybody has access to this, and information is power. We’ve heard knowledge is power over and over again from every teacher we’ve ever had. But that is so true because I don’t think any of us can really comprehend what it was like to live in a time when we did not have access to information where we had to rely on what a king or a priest told us and just say, well, we can’t really double check. So I guess he’s telling the truth. I mean, I can’t imagine knowing what journalism is like today, just relying on what somebody told me, you know? And so I believe, in my opinion, the printing press is probably one of, you know, except for maybe antic or, or, you know, sanitizer that kept us healthy. This might be the most revolutionary thing to happen to, human civilization.

Connor: And, why is it so important, right? Because those at the top, those in power want to maintain their power and they want to increase their power, right? So when you get control of, something, you’re always trying to defend that control against other people who want to take it away from you, but you’re also trying to increase it. That’s just kind of human behavior. And so, those in power, whether church or government, right? Like in history, you definitely saw these tendencies to want to keep people in the dark. They liked being able to kind of control the public, the masses, and make sure that they only knew certain things or believe certain things that they wouldn’t take action, rise up against them. And so it was in their best interest to control information. Well, suddenly comes the printing press, which makes it far easier for people to distribute like you say, decentralized their own ideas, unofficial sources, right? Who could build their own credibility, which is kind of how we got journalism, right? Kind of these independent, watchdogs or reporters who said, Hey, look, you can trust me because I’ve been doing this for a while, and people, you know, read it and they, you know, see that I’m accurate. You can trust me. So we have all these people who independently are able to share their ideas without permission of the king, without even knowledge of the king. And this is why, I mean, we’ve talked before about the first Amendment, you know, and the, freedom of speech and how critical it is that we are able to share ideas. Well, even after the printing press was created, that’s how they tried to shut this stuff down, right? Like America didn’t happen for centuries later. And so, for a long time in the medieval era, even today, in other, in certain other countries, there are plenty of governments that do not allow for the freedom of speech because they want to control what is approved. You look at China for example’s. Great example.

Brittany: Yeah, that is a good Example.

Connor: You speak up against the regime and, you’re likely going to be sent to a labor camp, are killed. And so, you know, the freedom of speech to be able to do this is important. But the people in control when the printing press came around, saw it as a threat because people could now start sharing their own ideas. And the people in control no longer had control of the information. and so, you know, as, I think about it, like the only recent example, not the only, but a recent example I can think of certainly is, the internet. However, you know, I’m a geek. I used to be a web developer. I think I’ve shared that on this show. I used to build websites for a living. And I learned how, starting in the late 1990s, back when, you know, AOL was a thing. So some of the adults will remember that you know, you’ve got mail and all that fucked up. And, back in the day, you had to know how to code. If you wanted a website, you had to learn HTML, a kinda programming language. And so I learned all that and I, built websites and whatever, but, you know, you had to have a lot of knowledge. There was a barrier, right? If you wanted to publish something on the internet, you needed to learn all this, like this new language, basically this language of websites. And so that was a barrier for a lot of people. So the internet, you know, started taking off and everything. But when blogging started, that is when things went crazy. Cuz that was almost like a printing press or the internet.

Brittany: And it’s a great example. Yeah.

Connor: Yeah. And so you had companies like Blogger and Live Journal and later WordPress, which remains popular. And, and now we have things like Medium, you know, is a popular one. Suddenly anyone can publish anyone. It’s totally decentralized. Where you don’t need to know HTML, you don’t need to be a programmer. You can just go on just like a printer could before with some paper and some tools and create, you know, a book. Now people can create information online. So in my mind we kind of have this modern example of how revolutionary the printing press was back in the day.

Brittany: You said something I kinda wanna go back to, you mentioned that we kind of lived in darkness, you know, before this happened. And I think it was really good time to kind of talk about we what we call the enlightenment, right? You hear about the enlightenment era? Well, the enlightenment era, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it happened after the printing press was invented, which I don’t know what we said the year, but I think 1440, correct me if I’m wrong, but I think 1440 was the year, but that came right before the Enlightenment. And I think that really brings a really cool perspective into what that means. Like we actually brought civilization out of darkness. And that always gives me chills to think about, because here you have a world where they didn’t have the decentralized information, they couldn’t just go to the library and be like, you know, I wanna learn this. They couldn’t do that. They didn’t have that option. And so knowledge is power is more than. It was actually bringing light into our lives. It was getting us out of the dark. And I think that’s a really cool way to look at, you know, what the dissemination of information’s done for us.

Connor: What’s interesting about, Gutenberg’s printing press, like he wasn’t actually, you know, the first he’s credited with inventing it. I did not know that. Yeah. Other people had been actually trying to, and successfully, automating the process of printing a book. In fact, I, think it was in China. there were some efforts like centuries prior, excuse me, to automate the process there were like using wood blocks and things like that. and so he wasn’t necessarily the first, but his particular invention, which had, like you think back in early America, you’ve seen a lot of examples, of these, in use because of all the pamphlets that, you know, the colonists were producing. So,  people who celebrate like American history, they often have like recreated, you know, printing presses. Sometimes I go to like festivals and, things like that. And someone will have a setup printing press and it’s cool, you kinda squeeze the thing, cuz the way it worked is there was a, like a big screw, like a wine press, right? If you how like squishing all the grapes and you kind of use force to press down using this big screw, you’re kind of turning this plate down on to kind of crush what’s underneath. And it’s that way to print a book, right? You’ve got kind of your, metal type, all your letters, you ink them up, you put your paper on there, and then you squeeze it down on top of one another. So it puts the ink onto the paper. And so, that invention was basically kind of the key to unlocking, the printing press as a way to quickly, produce books. Now, what’s funny about this is when we say quickly, you know, hi Gutenberg’s, like the thing he is most known for other than, the printing press itself is the Gutenberg Bible, right? he did the first creation of the Bible in Latin, which took him like three years to do. And he only printed around 200 copies in three years. Now the Bible’s pretty long, right?

Brittany: It’s a pretty long book

Connor: But 200 books in a full three years. But at the time, that was like miraculously quick, right? Because before then you had scribes letter by letter word by word, trying to write this stuff down. And it took forever, their hands would get sore. They’d have to, you know, have multiple,

Brittany: It kinda reminds me of old printers. I mean people, you know, kids won’t remember this, but like you and I will, the old printers took forever and you had to even separate the paper. Remember? It wasn’t, it was one long piece of paper and I remember waiting for something to print, sometimes took an hour, but it was so fast for us back then.

Connor: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. And, so even then, like here, comes Gutenberg printing all this stuff, but there were so many things happening at the time cuz you had the printing press starting to make these books. But then you also had these new like distribution networks opening up. You, they had to be able to sell the Gutenberg Bible and suddenly, you know, rather than this scarce item that only rich people would be able to get, cuz they basically employed the scribes themselves, right? Suddenly you had a marketplace, you had someone like Gutenberg saying, Hey, I have Bibles to sell. I have a surplus, right? Like, you can come to me and get this thing because I’ve made a bunch of them. And that was so innovative because before everything was by hand. You’d have to hire people. So it was only the rich people. And of course, then they’d like, you know, give it to their fellow, you know, rich person as a gift, you know, or whatever. And so now you had a marketplace, and so you have that kind of opening up. You have the renaissance, which, you know, as you point out, right? So this is happening at the same time, all these people sharing their ideas and wanting to, you know, get that out into the public. I think it was, I think it was a couple, yeah, it was a couple of decades later when, Martin Luther, who is one of the, you know, big religious reformers in the Protestant era, he had this quote about the printing press. He said printing is the ultimate gift of God and the greatest one. Well, why? Because here’s someone who was very critical of the church at the time. He had some religious objections, he was a priest himself, and he wanted to get these objections out to the masses. He wanted to communicate his ideas to a lot of people. And you know, the Pope hated him. And he went into exile and he started working on his own translations. And, so for him, printing is that this gift of God, because he was able to communicate with, a lot of people you may recall that, you know, he’s really famous for, at least it’s a legend where he nailed his argument to a church door, in Germany. And as quickly as like two weeks later, printers were already taking that document and recreating it using the printing presses.

Brittany: That’s fascinating.

Connor: Which had just been recently created. And so now they’re able to not require, not rely on Martin Luther to do it all, or not have to hand copy themselves. They’re able to crank these things out and suddenly it starts spreading all over Germany, all over Europe. It’s being translated because of the power of the printing press. Pretty amazing.

Brittany: It’s, so amazing. to me, I think the only thing that really surpasses it since then would probably be the internet, right? That the first time the internet worked, because that took everything to the next level. Instead of it taking two weeks or probably eventually, you know, got faster. Obviously, you know, the internet now, all I have to do, I mean, I have a bunch of Google homes in my house, literally, all I have to do is ask it a question and it answers it. You know, information is so accessible now that I think we forget that it wasn’t always that way. And that is one of those things where I sit back and just think like, wow, what a miracle it was that we were able to do that. So I, think that Gutenberg is probably, in my opinion, one of my top five most influential people in the history of the World.

Connor: Well, we will link to a few resources about Gutenberg on our show notes page for today. So if you’d like to do some additional learning, head to Tuttletwins.com/podcast. Totally a fun topic, to learn about. There’s so much more that goes into this that we can’t cover on our short episodes. So it would be a great homeschool lesson, a great opportunity to learn together as a family because there’s just so much to pick at and so many fun things that just started to unravel, and create and distribute and change so quickly because people could now share information. So a really fun topic to learn about. Head to Tuttletwins.com/podcast. Brittany is always this great chat with you and we’ll see you next time.

Brittany: Talk to you next time

 

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