First published in 1962, Marshall McLuhan's The Gutenberg Galaxy studies the emergence of what its author calls Gutenberg Man, the subject produced by the change of consciousness wrought by the advent of the printed book.

A propos of his axiom, "The medium is the message," McLuhan argues that technologies are not simply inventions which people employ but are the means by which people are re-invented. The invention of movable type was the decisive moment in the change from a culture in which all the senses partook of a common interplay to a tyranny of the visual. Movable type, with its ability to reproduce texts accurately and swiftly, extended the drive toward homogeneity and repeatability already in evidence in the emergence of perspectival art and the exigencies of the single "point of view".

Marshall McLuhan and The Gutenberg Galaxy

McLuhan divides history in four epochs: the oral tribe culture, the manuscript culture, the Gutenberg galaxy and the electronic age. The break between epochs in each case is marked by the appearance of a new medium. Hand-writing terminates the oral phase, printing replaces manuscript, and dynamic electric media deconstructs the static world of print.Paraphrased

The Gutenberg Galaxy, named for Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of printing, is the universe of all printed books ever published. The term was first used by Marshall McLuhan in his book The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man first published in 1962.

As an estimate of the size of the Gutenberg Galaxy, as of 2002/2003, the British Library claimed that it held over 150 million items, and the Library of Congress claimed that it held approximately 119 million items.

Given an estimated average book size of 6 Mbytes for a purely textual book containing 1 million words, this represents roughly 1,000,000,000,000,000 bytes (1015 bytes = 1,000,000 GB = 1,000 TB = 1 PB) of text.

(PB = 1015—peta, Quadrillion, Thousand Billion)

The Dawn of Writing

From The Hidden Center of the "Gutenberg Galaxy"

In his book Technopoly, Neil Postman discusses the mythic debate over the introduction of writing between Teheuti (Thoth) and Thamus the technological skeptic in Plato's Phaedrus. Teheuti argues for the positive advantages of writing, but Thamus counters that rather than aiding memory or wisdom, writing will lead to decreased memory and a false wisdom—a belief that information is the same thing as knowledge. Plato's own ambivalence about writing is well known—as Derrida points out, he calls it pharmakon, a word that suggests both medicine and poison. Of course, by Plato's time, writing in Greece was fairly widespread, and many oral tales that had long been retold over and over (such as Homer's Iliad) were finally being put down on the written papyrus.

It's fairly easy to list the obvious changes made possible by writing. Certainly, it allowed the emergence of classes of people in charge of recordkeeping, taxation, and religious liturgy—scribes, bureaucrats, and priests—and thus made possible hierarchical social organization. The first types of writing—hieroglyphs, cuneiform, Chinese idiographic writing—were mostly pictoral, but the creation of alphabets (arbitrary representations of phonetic utterances) made possible larger vocabularies and more complex semantics. Most cultures clearly associated the origins of writing with the birth of their own civilizations, hence the technology of writing was ascribed to some mythic "culture-bringer"—Ogham, Thoth, Quetzelcoatl, etc.

Most people are not aware, however, what writing had undone. Plato talks about how many rhetoricians used a technique known as the Art of Memory for facilitating their recall—a technique which seems to have involved projecting concepts or ideas into internally visualized architectural spaces, there to be later recalled. He laments how writing has made the once noble Art of Memory largely a forgotten art. Many cultures utilized an entirely oral tradition for maintaining their cultural sagas and mythos - the Druids had to study twenty years of wholly oral instruction. Even today, there are bards which remember and sing national epics and tales which are thousands of lines long. Plato may not have been the first one to notice that writing may have destroyed man's own prodigious mnemonic talents.

Part of the Art of Memory also involved using tools and images—icons, if you will—as metaphors for symbolic, moral instruction. Even today, we see this in chivalric, fraternal organizations such as the Freemasons, who use the tools of the building trade to symbolize their higher precepts. But if there is anything recent religious history has suggested, it is that the various Peoples of the Book (Biblios)—those whose religious life lies in an intimate connection to a sacred text—have overcome those whose religious life is tied to images or icons ('idolaters'.) Nonetheless, for the various monotheistic religions, it is clear that the Logos or uttered word is prior to and superior to the written or recorded revelations of the Divine. Hence, in Judaism, the importance of prophetic proclamations about the spirit rather than the letter of the Law, and the priority attached to the "oral Torah."

The spoken word is intimate, tied to the very breath and health of the speaker. The written word makes possible the autonomous survival of knowledge—with an oral tradition, it disappears when the oralists have all been killed; but, as people have noted for a long time, writing is impersonal, does not carry emotional intonations as well as speech, and lacks the identifying characteristics (pitch, tone, timbre, rate, etc.) that links speech to a speaker. Certainly, writing displays styles—some people insist they can recognize any particular writer's writing—but it is also not as idiosyncratic as speech. Even on the phone, we immediately know the voices of our loved ones. They are distinctive and unique. Most civilizations recognized that writing had been introduced as a divine gift, perhaps by a group of hieratic initiates—but, like Thamus, they knew that it had costs as well as benefits.