Gutenberg’s Dangerous Idea

With the exception of China and a handful of Muslim countries, the Bible is a fairly easy book to acquire. The Gideons shove Bibles into the nightstands of nearly every hotel room in the United States, missionaries hand out more of the Holy Book than food, and wild-eyed street preachers thrust The Word in the faces of those damned non-believers. It’s easily the world’s most printed and best-selling book [1].

Flashback a mere 600 years of human history and you find a completely different situation. From time immemorial, the transfer of written knowledge was a laborious task. For each copy, a scribe would have to meticulously reproduce by hand the seventy-six books of the Vulgate Bible [2], a task that required over a year [3]. Mass circulation (and in turn literacy amongst commoners) was non-existent.

It’s the mid 1440’s. Enter Johannes Gutenberg, a German goldsmith and entrepreneur recovering from his financially devastating endeavor of selling polished metal mirrors to pilgrims under the pretense that the mirrors could capture holy light from religious relics[3]. Whilst contemplating his financial woes, a sudden “ray of light” dawned up Gutenberg, and for the next decade he labored away at his little secret.

The course of human history was forever changed by Gutenberg’s dangerous idea. The mechanical printing process facilitated by Gutenberg’s movable metal type allowed for the mass reproduction and distribution of printed works. About 180 Bibles were produced by Gutenberg, each weighing in at 1282 pages long [4]. While not affordable to layman in 1455 (each Bible cost about three years of wages [3]), cost-effective mass publication and circulation emerged as the printing process evolved beyond Gutenberg’s lifetime.

Like many great innovators, Gutenberg died in relative obscurity. New technologies rarely reach maturation within the inventor’s lifetime; such the weight of genius. Centuries later, Gutenberg’s invention would be heralded as the most important of the second millennium [3].

Gutenberg’s invention was (and is) a dangerous idea. The free and open mass-dissemination of information is doubled-edged, for every word written contains a version of truth– some less grounded in our corporeal reality than others. As these memes replicate and form a larger, more complex host– mass media– a seven-headed beast awakens wielding the awesome powers of propaganda, bias, and scrutability.

Media, applied judiciously, can advance a society. Gutenberg’s dangerous idea enabled radical new ideas to be widely propagated and refuted, sparking the European Renaissance and emboldening scientists such as Galileo Galilei to challenge the unchallengeable: the all-powerful Catholic Church [5]. Martin Luther used Gutenberg’s dangerous idea to translate the Bible into vernacular, allowing his 16th-century audience (now considerably more literate thanks to Gutenberg’s invention) to explore their faith independently– and consequently caused a permanent schism between Protestants and Catholics [6]. Great thinkers and revolutionaries from the have relied on Gutenberg’s dangerous idea from the Age of Enlightenment to our contemporary epoch to galvanize change, topple power structures, and cause sociological reform.

As with any man-made tool, Gutenberg’s dangerous idea has the capacity to function as an extension of personal ill-intents. Aggregately, the media is a portrait of mankind’s collective insanity. It is the incarnation of our great dysfunction (our Original Sin, some might say): we live as selfish individuals in a increasingly populated world, an environment which requires Pareto optimum decision-making [7] to avoid Malthusian catastrophe [8]. Media feasts upon our collective insanity: we individually desire to witness dramas; drama is caused when opposing forces clash; to sustain drama, and consequently itself, we ensure through media that the world is in a state of permanent conflict. From the nationalistic propaganda that anticipated both World Wars to the incessant chatter of the “talking heads” that contaminate modern American news, Gutenberg’s dangerous idea thrives on our schizophrenic desires to live a peaceful personal life whilst detachedly watching the world burn.

Gutenberg’s dangerous idea is also a resource, and until recent times remained a very limited one. The overhead cost of writing is mostly time: the author must devote part of him or herself to the composition. The overhead cost of mass production is immense, and the only power structure capable of endorsing mass media in Gutenberg’s time was the Church [9]. Consequently, the spectrum of printed material during that time was severely restricted to that which was Church-approved. As the Church and State began parting ways during the Age of Enlightenment, government and private enterprise assumed the mantle. The mass-dissemination of information, whilst open in the most capitalistic sense, was most certainly not free of charge.

The trend has continued well into the Age of Information. Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst’s legendary media wars (deftly facilitated by yellow journalism [10]) at the turn of the 20th century were an omen of what was to come. With the introduction of radio, television, and film, the mass-dissemination of information literally reached the speed of light. Men such as Rupert Murdoch, Ted Turner, and Michael Eisner moved surreptitiously to amalgamate as many sources of media as possible, in turn becoming fantastically wealthy and dangerously powerful [11]. Other, such as Opera Winfrey, Martha Stewart, and Howard Stern have expanded their media base through the their respective cults of personality [12].

The few men and women who comprise the modern-day media oligarchy are not innately evil. In their own ways, they contribute to the world as they individually feel necessary– and therein lies the problem. Few great ideas have come from the masses; few great movements have come from individuals. Within the current media power structure exists a dangerous marriage between mankind’s collective insanity and the foibles of being human. It is, as former British Prime Minister Stanley Balwin stated, “the prerogative of the harlot through the ages: power without responsibility.” [13]

Appallingly, media moguls perform the charade of presenting themselves “fair and balanced” [14] whilst pursuing their personal biases. It is not the pursuit of the bias in and of itself that is wrong– “impartial journalism” is a falsehood, for the discrimination between versions of truth is inherently biased– but rather the deliberate mass deception by authoritatively presenting it as The Truth that reinforces the individual’s power without responsibility. There is good reason why Stephen Colbert’s word “truthiness” was 2005’s word of the year [15]. In effect, Gutenberg’s dangerous idea has toppled religious, economic, and political power structures only to construct own of its own.

A modern-day Gutenberg walked onto the international scene at the end of the 20th century. Tim Berners-Lee, a computer scientist working with CERN, developed an idea that currently threatens stability of the media’s century-old power structure [16]. Look at the top of your web browser. You see that little “http://” that comes before the website name? That’s Tim. Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) enabled two computers to communicate with each other simply through typing in a domain name (like “”), thereby creating the World Wide Web (sorry Al Gore, but “Information Superhighway” is a stupid name [17]).

Gutenberg’s dangerous idea is, for the first time in history, truly realizable: the mass-dissemination of information is now both open and free (provided that you can connect to the Internet). The most recent trend in Web 2.0 is for community mashups– sites in which the users don’t just connect to the website but rather are the website. Naturally, media moguls have been grabbing as many of the popular websites that they can, conglomerating them under their respective corporate banners. It’s just capitalism in action. However, the Internet provides, for the first time in human history, the means for the common man to both produce and publish his or her own works.

It’s an amazing technology– and a frightening one. As the power of media transfers to the public domain, journalistic credibility has given way to Wikiality [18], radio stations have yielded to Podcasts, and television programming has phased into Youtube. Society does not change without toppling some power structures. Given that all power structures are comprised of humans with very human needs and very human weaknesses, the natural collective response within these structures is to resist their own demise. The music industry, given the opportunity to embrace a powerful new technology, opted for antagonism; the subsequent lawsuits against and other file-sharing sites were a result of a power structure struggling to evolve [19].

They were only the first. Media moguls see the Internet as a threat to their control (and thereby their power structures). Their proposed solution? Provide tiered Internet service, where you have to pay more per month to access different “tiers” of the Internet [20]. (Guess who owns the websites that would end up on the basic tier everyone gets?). The Net Neutrality Act [21], which promises to keep access to all Internet websites free and open, has been proposed in United States Congress several times. Unforunately, lobbyists from the telecommunication power structures have been successful thus far in defeating each bill.

Living on a small Caribbean island, I have a rare opportunity. Not only am I the best in my field at only twenty-six years of age, but I also have the chance to have a genuine positive impact in the developing world. As Roatan experiences the growing pains of its imminent development, the community will face the overwhelming burden of building an environmentally sustainable infrastructure despite our vast socioeconomic and cultural differences. Unfortunately, there only exists only media outlet on the island (Bay Islands Voice). As diligently as they try to keep the island informed (and I applaud the editor for his hard work), a monthly periodical is not enough for an island that grows daily.

I believe that the power of Gutenberg’s dangerous idea as facilitated by the Internet is essential to guide Roatan through this tumultuous period. I have been working for the last five months on a new website,, that is a manifestation of Gutenberg’s dangerous idea. It gives those of us who live on the island the power to report news ourselves. It gives visitors to the island the power to provide feedback, consequently affecting our local economy. It promotes business responsibility and accountability through reports on environmental damage. It allows local businesses, both big and small, to market their services to their target audience. It provides the tools this island needs to emerge from the upcoming period of rapid development as a beautiful, preserved, and prosperous place in which all three major cultures (Islander, Mainlander, and Expatriate) can thrive.

The potential of steady news in a place largely devoid of media is simultaneously exhilarating on the community level and terrifying on the personal. With the events that unfolded two weeks ago, I applied Gutenberg’s dangerous idea to galvanize a personal agenda. (I have since removed said posts out of respect for the deceased). While I wholeheartedly believe that what I did was right, it also awakened me to the potential dangers of making noise in a very quiet island. Treading that line, I expect, will become an ongoing experience, one that I will hopefully walk with maturity and intelligence.

It truly is a dangerous idea.

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