In a new book titled “The 100 most influential figures of the second millennium”, Johannes Gutenberg, the German blacksmith who introduced the mechanical movable type printing to Europe in the 15th century, ranks very high on the list.
However, over the years his achievements have been largely overlooked by historians.
Originating in China in the 11th century, the printing press was introduced to Europe a couple of hundred years later.
However, it wasn’t until Gutenberg perfected the machine, invented the movable type system for printing, and founded the modern publishing firm that the technology itself truly became a game-changer, completely transforming the western world and giving rise to the modern western civilization.
Before the introduction and popularization of printing, books were only available in handwritten manuscripts, and since they were not mass-produced, the spread of knowledge was greatly hindered.
During the medieval period, the church and the clergy had absolute monopoly on owning books and teaching knowledge, and hence the overwhelming majority of people in European society were denied access to learning.
However, the introduction of the movable type printing press and the rise of the publishing business completely toppled the cultural status quo.
The spread of knowledge among ordinary people finally became possible, thereby altering the power structure of European society for good.
It is often said that the Renaissance, the Reformation or even the industrial revolution would not have been possible without the introduction of printing to Europe.
And since then, universities had replaced the church and become the powerhouse of learning.
Today we are witnessing the dawn of a new age brought by another revolutionary invention, which is, of course, the internet.
By giving every average individual access to even the most highly specialized knowledge which used to be taught solely in university lectures, the internet has revolutionized the way we learn.
Some have referred to the internet age as the Second Printing Revolution, and predicted that perhaps in a hundred years’ time, the internet will replace universities as the major platform of receiving higher education.
The implications of the internet for human society are still continuing to unfold, and it might take more time for things to sink in.
But one thing is for certain: the internet is definitely another huge game-changer that will topple the status quo and alter the power structure of human society like the printing press did 500 years ago.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 14
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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