For me, the Gutenberg press brings to mind images of mammoth metal machinery relentlessly hammering out copies of the early books that were to transform the world. In reality the first printing press, constructed in the 1440s, was a flimsy wooden affair, understating in its presence the impact it would have on the world.
I always thought of the Gutenberg Press as the beginning of an era. The (free) press – the liberation of knowledge, formerly cooped up in monasteries and ivory towers, now available to the masses.
There’s no denying the positive impact on technological progress, and a liberation from an ignorance of life beyond our horizon, wide access to printed material achieved. But it was also the end of an era…
…or the start of a bubble. Tom Pettitt  refers to it as the Gutenberg parenthesis – a period between the invention of the press and round about now – wherein new media, including the internet, have popped the bubble and liberated our voices. The period between then and now was not a new-normal but an aberration – where technology and big business held more sway over the way we lived our lives, and what we thought, than our friends, family and community. Which is how we lived and communicated for millennia before the press.
The free, in free press, was always a parenthetical ideal – not a reality. It has always been those with money who have been able to choose what gets printed (and later produced and broadcast) to the masses.
Essentially our humanness was on hold there for a while – under the spell of mass broadcast media who said “there is a right answer – ours, now that’ll be $10 for the book/film/magazine please – do sit quietly and consume it, oh and an extra $5 for pop-corn thanks.”
And we were thankful to be treated like the audience (with nothing useful to contribute back), and believed everything the press fed us – because it was easy and tasted good and “oh look, new shiny stuff – this must be progress”.
But over the 20th century we discovered that not everything we were told was true, and not every publisher or producer had our best interests at heart. We discovered that the lowest common denominator and economies of scale were deciding what got made – leaving new ideas, minorities and so many people’s stories out in the cold.
This worked fine if you were the proverbial grey-haired white-man interested in accumulating wealth and non-controversial ideas – but what started as a transformative technology that made us all that bit smarter quickly began to dumb us down and homogenise the world.
Remixable and conversational new media; like zines, hip-hop, hypermedia and then the Internet have burst the spell/bubble. They are a re-awakening of our essential humanness, an interest in community, conversation and direct connection with those who produce what we consume (food, services, media…).
This is the essence of social media. Which is not a specific tool – but more like a set of wedges that we can jam in the cogs of the printing press and move from audience to participant – in terms of again participating in creating our culture(s), interacting with one-another and business.
We no longer have to blindly consume what is broadcast at us, we can at the very least respond and even better reconstruct, deconstruct and make it into our own stories. We can watch how a business conducts itself and tell them if we don’t approve and work with them to help them improve.
This had made the world an uglier, but more colourful and varied space – splintered our attention but given a greater percentage of us an input into shaping the world we live in. This is awesome. Exiting the Gutenberg parenthesis we regain our voices and control over our culture. With all the advantages of new distance-eradicating technologies that mean we are no longer limited to forming communities based around geography – but instead we can cluster around interests and ideas.
The danger today is that we embrace new technologies in such a way that they turn each of us as individuals into mini-mass-media beings, or micro-broadcasters. A drive for a higher follower-count on Twitter or to use tools to simply talk about those same tools speaks to a desire to mimic the past. If that is your thing, and you see it as a way to succeed in life or business, that is fine.
But this column is about social media for the social individual not for the business. In this column, over the coming weeks, I’m going to explore social media from the point of view of the new citizen and communities. And if you’re a business looking to exploit social media for success you’ll hopefully get something out of this – in terms of how to genuinely engage with the regular net citizen, not just with social media consultants.
Because regular folk just want a better living through online, not a better life living online.
Comments, counter-opinions, case-studies and questions very welcome below or you can contact me directly.
Next Week: Back to the market – the game of haggling.
-  Pettitt, Tom, “Before the Gutenberg Parenthesis: Elizabethan-American Compatibilities” [PDF, 49KB]
- Photo Credit: Andrew Plumb – Creative Commons (Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic) – original image.