Steven Pemberton : Views and Feelings

First published September 2005

Newsnight interviews Gutenberg on the invention of the book

After the success of their interview with Tim Berners-Lee, BBC's Newsnight decided to interview Johann Gutenberg.

At the 1455 Frankfurt Book Fair, Gutenberg demonstrated the power of the printing press by selling copies of a two-volume Bible (Biblia Sacra) for 300 florins each. This was the equivalent of approximately three years' wages for an average clerk, but it was significantly cheaper than a handwritten Bible, which could take a single monk 20 years to transcribe.

Five hundred and fifty years on, he tells BBC Newsnight how writing novels is closer to his original idea about read/write book publishing.

Newsnight: Because of your invention, I was able to read all about your achievements. But at the same time, I read several pornographic books. Is the latter absolutely worth paying for the former?

Johann Gutenberg: That's an interesting question that you ask, as though it's a yes or no answer. As though our choice is to go back to scriptora, or continue printing. I feel that books should be something which basically don't try to coerce people into putting particular sorts of things in them.

I feel that we need to individually work on putting good things in them, finding ways to protect ourselves from accidentally reading the bad stuff, and that at the end of the day, a lot of the problems of bad information out there, things that you don't like, are problems with humanity.

This is humanity which is communicating with books, just as it's communicating in so many other ways. I think it's a more complicated question we have to address; first of all, make it a universal medium, and secondly we have to work to make sure that that it supports the sort of society that we want to build on top of it.

NN: When you think in terms of what it has allowed, what is the achievement of the printing press?

JG: It was a new medium, it's a universal medium and it's not itself a medium which inherently makes people do good things, or bad things. It allows people to do what they want to do more efficiently. It allows people to exist in a world which doesn't know geographical boundaries. My hope is that it'll be very positive in bringing people together around the planet, because it'll make communication between different countries more possible.

But on the other hand I see it as a substrate for humanity, I see it as something on which humanity will do what humanity does and the questions as to what we as individuals and we collectively do, are still just as important and just as much as before, up to us.

NN: But do you feel responsible? You say humanity will do whatever it does with it, do you feel responsible for what happens?

JG: I do not feel responsible for everything that humanity does, no. I suppose I feel a responsibility when people read books expecting one thing and get something else, so yes I suppose that's partly why I was involved with printing bibles, and lots of other people are trying to create other things.

Towards a rewritable publishing industry

NN: I'm interested that at what sense you began to sense the possibilities. You weren't thinking telephone directories, you weren't thinking novels, I assume.

JG: Well in some ways. The idea was that anybody who published a book would have a space where they could write something. Every person who had access to a printing press had the ability to write something. It was very easy to make leaflets and comment on what somebody else had written, which is very much what publishing is about.

For years I had been trying to address the fact that publishing for most people wasn't a creative space; there were scriptoria, but publishing books was time-consuming for people. What happened with the printing press was that it became much simpler and quicker.

When you print a book, you don't sit for hours writing, you just print a page at a time, so I'm very, very happy to see that now it's gone in the direction of becoming more of a creative medium.

NN: Moving on to the consequences and the uses of books, the first question that arises a lot is the quality, the reliability of the information that is there. Now some people think that books have led to this great empire of lies, of unreliability. You simply don't know what the state of any of this information is.

JG: When you say there are a lot of lies out there, if you go randomly picking up pieces of paper in the street or leafing through garbage at the garbage dump what are the chances you'll find something reliable written on the paper that you find there? Very small. When you read a book, if you really rummage around randomly then how do you hope to find something of any of value?

But when you use a library, you follow references and you should keep bookmarks of the places that are worth reading. When you go to a book and it gives you references to literature that you find are horrible or unreliable, then don't read it again.

You see out there right now, for example, when you look at authors and journalists some of them are very careful. A good author when he says that something's happened will have a point to back, and there's a certain ethos within the writing community, you always point to your source, you point all the way back to the original article. If you're looking at something and you don't know where it comes from, if there's no pointer to the source, you can ignore it.

Powerful tool

NN: You must reflect though on the law of unintended consequences because it wasn't remotely ever your intention when you started on this that so much of publishing would be given over to sexual exhibitionists masturbating in their bedrooms with dirty magazines. Do you ever have bad moments about that?

JG: Well I don't see that stuff.

NN: But you know it's there though?

JG: Some people tell me. You tell me. I suppose the question is to what extent the people use it for things which should seriously concern us. For example, are people using books to get information about how to do illegal things, whether it's to make explosives, how to kill people, poison people, or whatever it is. So there's a certain amount of danger that this tool can be used for bad purposes. It's a very powerful tool.

NN: And you've never had a sleepless night over that?

JG: No I haven't. I haven't had a sleepless night over it because I suppose I'm so much more surrounded by the good things that people are doing with it. There are lots of positive stories of people doing great things, putting educational information out there for people in developing countries and things, for example. There's a huge spirit of goodness. Most of the people I meet who are writing books are focused on all those things.

NN: You have a convenient benchmark, because you had a daughter who was born just as publishing was beginning. Her stages of development are the same as books in years. So, when she is 570, say, what would you want publishing at 570 to be?

JG: People often quite successfully compare publishing with a growing person, and it's certainly had its years of adolescence when it's been trying to push the boundaries, see how far we can go, and I think some of these things, with adverts and politics that we see at the moment are examples of that. And people have been pushing backwards and forwards about copyright, and I think a lot of those things will settle down.

When it's 570, I expect it to be much more stable, something that people don't talk about. Really when you talk about a letter, you don't say, "Oh, I'm going to write a letter on paper!" The fact that we use pen and paper is sort of rather understood.

Similarly books will be, hopefully, something which is sunk into the background as an assumption. Now, if as technologies develop, we've done our job well, books will be this universal medium, which will be very, very flexible. It won't, itself, have any preconceived notions about what's built on top.

One of the reasons that I wanted to keep it open like that, is partly because I wanted humanity to have it as a clean slate. My goal for publishing was to be the platform which has led to the building of something very new and special, which we couldn't imagine then.

NN: Johann Gutenberg, thank you very much.

First published September 2005

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