Living with technology: the printing press

[As part of a new discovery module at the University of Leeds, I was asked to be filmed taking about the printing press as technology. I was going to extemporize (there’s so much to say, and they only wanted 3-4 minutes), but as I’ve never used an autocue before, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to try it out. Here’s the script.]

It is hard to overstate the importance of the printing press. For about 500 years, printed material has shaped both the way we communicate, whether mediating between those living alongside us, or allowing us to read material from the past or bequeath our own to the future. In many ways, print’s very ubiquity has blinded us to its contours, to the way it shapes the material to which it gives shape. But now, in what’s sometimes called the late age of print, when electronic communication offers an alternative medium for reading and writing, we are beginning to see print and its legacy anew.

Print is a technology of copying. After some experimentation, its technical basis was more or less stable from 1500 until the introduction of steam in early nineteenth century. As with all technological shifts, older methods persisted alongside new ways of printing, but steam provided a new motive force that vastly increased the rate of reproduction. It was steam, along with innovations in paper-making, that created the conditions for a mass readership, where large groups of people were reading the same things at the same times. Even so, the everydayness of books was a fairly late development. The printed book has long been venerated, but it was not until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that it became a common object found in most households. We have had books for a long time, but for much of this people’s encounter with print would have been in other forms: newspapers and chapbooks; posters and broadsides.

Print is a medium, a way of making text reproducible. As such, it intervenes between the hand that writes and the eye that reads. While we might usefully think of handwriting as a type of technology, too, print makes texts mechanical, the work of a machine. It is curious that few people even notice the shapes of letters or the format of printed texts, instead experiencing reading as a kind of contact with the mind of the author. On the one hand, print masks human agency, making all texts seem like species of the same; on the other, print, a collaboration between a human and a machine, sets text free.

As a technology of reproduction, it is easy to see printing as secondary. Authors do the important creative stuff; printers just turn it into reproducible form. But this is to underestimate the power of copying. For almost half a millennium, print has allowed people to get to know those they have never met; it has served as the basis of a public sphere; and it has archived the world’s knowledge. Now, as we come to terms with a new technology of copying, we are beginning to learn the extent to which we have depended on print, the ways in which this technology has set the conditions for textuality itself.