Digitization: The Next Gutenberg?

James Harker
March 02, 2010
Photo of a Gutenberg wooden printing press.

In the March 11, 2010 issue of the New York Review of Books, Jason Epstein's article "Publishing: the Revolutionary Future" claims that the current move to digital publishing is "a technological shift orders of magnitude greater than the momentous evolution from monkish scriptoria to movable type launched in Gutenberg's German city of Mainz six centuries ago."

Epstein sees a near future in which the infrastructure of print publication is entirely dismantled despite resistance from the publishing industry. Among Epstein's more interesting speculations is that "a worldwide, uniform copyright convention will be essential." Epstein is concerned "without protection authors will starve and civilization will decline."

Both optimistic and cautious, Epstein celebrates the inevitable and unforeseeable changes that digitization will bring about while he worries about the dangers--the ease with which books can be illegally shared, censored, deleted, destroyed, or lost in the overwhelming array of available material.

Of the work that scholars do, Epstein has some confidence: "Informed critical writing of high quality on general subjects will be as rare and as necessary as ever and will survive as it always has in print and online for discriminating readers. Works of genius will emerge from parts of the world where books have barely penetrated before, as such works after Gutenberg emerged unbidden from the dark and silent corners of Europe. Gutenberg's press, however, did not give Europe, with its tight cultural boundaries, a common tongue. Digitization may produce a somewhat different outcome by giving worldwide exposure to essential scientific and literary texts in major languages: Rome redux, while translators will still find plenty of work."

What do you think? What is the form that scholarship will take in the age of digitization?