Sunday, April 01, 2007

It's All in the Delivery

It's All in the Delivery

In 25,000 years, nothing has really changed except the method of sharing content.

No matter how far back in history you go, humans have captured the moment and written it down, somewhere. Whether you look at the 25,000-year-old Ishango baton from the Congo that recorded a six-month lunar calendar, which was the first known non-cerebral memory device, now called a book … or the cave paintings of France … or the scrolls of the Library of Alexandria … or the retooled olive press of Mr. Gutenberg, you couldn’t find a more interesting and complex period of our industry, of information distribution, than now. OK, maybe Mr. Gutenberg’s era was pretty exciting too.

From the moment movable type was invented till just a few years ago our path was crystal clear and unavoidable. Gutenberg created movable type from soft metal, and an industry was born from the rapid distribution of information.

Did you know he swore his printing partners to secrecy? And upon their deaths, the contract read that the “idea and process” of movable type defaulted back to Gutenberg and his heirs. Nice try, Johannes. Too bad that he died in poverty. Imagine that—the man who invented the world’s first real mass-information distribution system dies in poverty.

An Irresistible Force
The growth of the printing press and the distribution of information was an irresistible force, whose only combatant at the time was ignorance and what seems to us now extremely limited technology.

Of course that limitation is only apparent to us as we look back with tremendous hindsight. The technology of that day was nothing less than amazing, as is our reaching out to the stars. It took a single scribe over a year to copy a single book. Did you know that it took 200 to 300 sheepskins to make a bible? And there was no “preflighting” and “spell checking” to make sure that the scribe got it right.

But Gutenberg could turn out hundreds of books in a week, each one identical to the next. So it is not hard to envision the exponential growth of … well, everything. You no longer needed old wise men to learn from. You didn’t need to be an apprentice. You could learn anything and everything from a book.

Well, we all know the story of how the first book was a bible. But do you know what the very next books were? The topics were exactly the same things that are popular today. Craft books, then scientific books, then the explosion of thought and free thinking.

The printing press reduced the cost of books, increased their availability and encouraged the spread of literacy. It helped alter the economic, scientific and ideological outlooks for the next five centuries. It must have spread something like a virus, and the net result was that it democratized knowledge. And that is no small thing. Yes, that is the business Gutenberg was in, and so are you.

From Storytellers to E-tellers
We have gone from the storytellers of the oral tradition and cave paintings to memory devices like batons and parchment scribed by hand. We have gone from the printing press to new forms of electronic communication. Each new development in the history of communication has always further democratized the delivery of information. Nothing has really changed, except the method of delivery.

So if you think about it, printing on dead trees is no longer the only way of reproducing books and magazines. The process of reading, however, has not changed an iota; it is the same as it has always been.

We are still reading exactly the same way we did 25,000 years ago—we are still mentally interpreting written symbols. We are exploring new ways to do the same things the Ishango shaman did. Capturing ideas, storing it outside of the brain, and passing it on to other humans. Nothing has changed in 25,000 years except the method of delivery. PE

Bob Sacks (aka BoSacks) is a consultant to the printing/publishing industry and president of The Precision Media Group ( He is publisher and editor of a daily, international e-newsletter, Heard on the Web. Sacks has held posts as director of manufacturing and distribution, senior sales manager (paper), chief of operations, pressman, cameraman and corporate janitor.

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