Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Son of Gutenberg Rides Again

The first Information Age, the Age of Oral Tradition, began with gesture, speech, painting, dancing, and song in a time from which no record survives, long before the few cave paintings and bits of jewelry that we know about.

The second Information Age, the Age of Writing, began with clay tokens pressed into clay balls and tablets, perhaps 6000 years ago. Dozens of manual writing technologies developed over the millenia without changing the basic economics of writing. They include carving in stone, scratching on bark, writing with brush on silk or quill pen on parchment and later paper, and so on.

In 1450 Johannes Gutenberg started setting type for what we now call the Gutenberg Bible, and Aldus Manutius was born. The beginning of the Renaissance in Europe is often dated to the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Ottoman Turks. Greeks fled in all directions, and those who could took their books with them. A multitude of these Greeks landed in Italy, where Aldus Manutius created the first font for printing Greek in the 1490s. The rest, as they say, is history.

With printing, nothing could stop the spread of new ideas, such as the Protestant Reformation. A century and a half later we got Shakespeare and Galileo, born in the same year. Printing was a key element in Luther's Reformation in the fifteenth century, and in the American Revolution in the eighteenth, and in just about everything else.

Printing with movable metal type has turned out to be the most important invention of the last millenium, and the last 500 years or so can rightly be called the third Information Age..

The fourth age of information begins with radio and movies, and continues on through TV, CDs, and DVDs, in overlap with the rise of the computer.

Now we have in the Internet another technology of comparable importance. Gutenberg's invention resulted in the production of many more copies of millions of books and other publications, but the Web already has billions of pages.

In particular, Project Gutenberg has made more than six thousand public-domain works of literature in English available to the world at essentially no cost. Similar collections are appearing in many other ancient and modern languages. Here are just a few.

Iran Virtual Library
The Digital Mirror, Welsh
South Asia Literary Resource Access on the Internet
The Buddhist scriptures in Pali
The Electronic Buddhist Text Initiative in Pali, Sanskrit, Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and more.
The Unbound Bible in English, Greek, Hebrew, and other languages.
The Internet Classics Archive in Latin, Greek, and Chinese
The Perseus Digital Library in Greek and Latin

As in the Renaissance, much effort has gone into republishing existing works with the new technology, even as a flood of new publishing is enabled. The consequences for education and public discourse cannot now be fairly estimated. We can imagine some of them, such as a radical decrease in the cost of education, particularly in developing countries, or the gradual shift, visible even today, to online publishing of scientific and technical journals at no cost to the reader, and to Open Source textbooks, built by a public collaborative process and again free to the reader. Gutenberg and Aldus Manutius could not have imagined Shakespeare or Galileo, much less the New Yorker or E. F. Schumacher's Small is Beautiful: Economics as though People Mattered.

The Simputer can give many more people access to these free collections of literature either on-line or on CD-ROM. We really don't know what the impact will be, but we are talking about a lot more material than the Greeks brought from Constantinople to Italy being made available to many times more people than lived in all of Europe. If the Renaissance was big, this could be bigger than big.

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