Today’s techno-panic would have killed the printing press

Opposition to contemporary technological advances is common, but it has never had such a powerful ally in mainstream media sources. Editorial commentators should know that the state of mind now opposing Lyft, Uber and Airbnb would have prevented the printing press from commercializing, and thus threatened their very existence.

Gutenberg’s invention caused controlled technopanics

We all know the stories of the initial opposition to technological advancements, ranging from mistrust of the appearance of books to rejection of train travel due to mistrust of the immense speed of the train.

When Johannes Gutenberg invented the first printing press, he revolutionized the way information could be propagated. Suddenly, it became realistic to mass produce information that was previously only accessible to a privileged few. This was especially true of the distribution of scripture, which until now has been restricted to members of the church.

In an exchange, documented in The justification by Johann Gutenberg (Blake Morrison 2000), Gutenberg argues with the chief monk of a monastery who decided to expel him:

Gutenberg: “Helping men and women to become literate, to give them knowledge, to make books so cheap that even a peasant could afford them: that is my hope, yes.


chief monk: ‘The word of God must be interpreted by priests, not spread like dung.’

Gutenberg: ‘I don’t want to strip the Word.’

chief monk: ‘But it will happen. Handing it over to everyone is languid, would you like plowmen and weavers to debate the Gospel in taverns?

Gutenberg: ‘If that’s what they want to do.’

chief monk: ‘But what about the dangers? It would be like giving a candle to infants.

Gutenberg: ‘Such copies that we make of the Bible would primarily be for monasteries and churches.’

chief monk: ‘The Bible? Do you intend to do the Bible too? ‘

Gutenberg: ‘I thought about it.’

With the appearance of Gutenberg’s printing press, the monks’ chambers were laid off in perhaps the first technological layoff on record. The copyist must have wondered: was their profession about to disappear? As a result, the print media encountered opposition:

Ironically, the uniformity of copies of Gutenberg’s Bible led many superstitious people of the day to equate the impression with Satan because it seemed to be magical. Apprentice printers have become the “printer’s devil”. In Paris, Fust [a typographer] was accused of witchcraft. Although he escaped the Inquisition, other printers did not. (The Unsung Heroes, a History of Print by Dr Jerry Waite 2001)

History also shows that opposition to the printing press has not been eternal. As Gutenberg’s Bibles flooded the market, the Church recognized the potential of the printer when it came to spreading the word of God. Instead of leaving the Bible only to those who belonged to the church, Catholics and Protestants engaged in the battle of ideas by distributing mass-produced books as fast as they could.

The 18th-century rotary press revolutionized the American media landscape

Until the invention of the rotary press by William Nicholson in 1790, it was not technically possible to produce large quantities of newspapers. As a result, the American press mainly addressed a very specific audience. For a good illustration of this, look at the list of missing newspapers in the United States.

Of those newspapers that barely reached the turn of the 20th century – Nicholson’s press was commercialized in the 19th century – many were addressed only to a certain population. These were papers such as Anglo-African weekly, affiliated with the Whig New York courier and applicant or the Freie Arbeiter Stimulates, a Yiddish-language anarchist newspaper. This American model of the press gave the reader what he wanted to hear.

However, new printing mechanisms have enabled newspapers to print thousands more copies in less time. As it became unnecessary to flatter a certain audience, journalists had to learn to write articles that could be considered neutral and impartial. The “impartial” journalist only emerged because the print media made him economically possible.

Technopanic media support

It is very strange that journalists who live with advances in technological progress are inclined to try to restrict it today.

The internet has made it possible for anyone to blog and report local news or comment on the actions of a politician with a nifty editorial. However, instead of presenting this as a huge step forward, it almost seems that mainstream journalists are bemoaning an alleged devaluation of their efforts through the democratization of the media.

The same goes for the sharing economy. Instead of celebrating the immense advancements in the way people connect and do business with each other, reducing consumer prices and providing economic opportunities at every level, journalists are quick to jump on the fear train.

The Guardian The newspaper has more than 500 articles online on the subject of the Uber rideshare service, overwhelmingly calling for new restrictions on the app.

The British newspaper’s technophobia is making headlines: Technology disrupts everything before itself – democracy is in sight, Capitalism’s claim to do good seems fragile if there is not much to stop it from doing harm, Where The dark side of Uber: why the sharing economy needs tougher rules.

Centuries ago, it was the rare intellectual who had a vested interest in restraining the proliferation of books. After all, who would need their wisdom when information could be gathered on paper? Much later, classical copyists opposed the commercialization of the printing press, because they believed it would make them irrelevant (even if they knew it later). After all, who would need their skills if every fool could make a book?

Today, various players are taking advantage of the restriction of technological advances. Modern journalists should keep the history of their profession in mind and not advocate technological conservatism.

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