Digital Gutenberg
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Gutenberg, Part II: Digital Gutenberg

This brings me now to that other great moment -- to that other revolution in the making -- the one I call "Digital Gutenberg." As I suggested, it is a moment that is at least as important as Gutenberg's invention of the edition, and it is a moment that, if we proceed with intelligence and imagination, may ultimately prove to have even more profound consequences.

I will not go into a detailed technical history of the computer. Suffice to say that from about the early 1920s to 1971 it had little to offer the artist, writer, or publisher. It was, in the main, a machine for a new priesthood of scientists, engineers, and accountants, whose interests were defined by government and industry. These early computers were huge, complex, and mysterious. They filled whole buildings, took armies of ant-like operators to keep them going, and they had forbidding names -- like EDIAC, UNIVAC, MANIAC, and JOHNNIAC. It took the invention of the silicon chip and the printed circuit to bring those machines down to a more promising scale -- to produce what I call "people computers." And even the early people computers were not much, because they lacked the memory and speed required for the kinds of work that graphics and publishing demand. Moreover, the operational systems were still too layered and too mechanical for the sensuous nature of artistic enterprises.

The best technology is the technology you do not have to think about. The artist does not care how the pencil is made, so long as it makes a proper line. The writer does not care about the interior processes of his or her typewriter, so long as the words appear on the paper in readable form. It is enough for the artist to keep focused on the creative act, to keep the flow moving in a productive way. The important thing is that we finally did get something that was not only a people machine but also a publishing machine. That was barely more than ten years ago. They came in many shapes and sizes, but two in particular have been especially useful and very accessible -- the IBM PC and the Apple machines. And it was of course Apple who introduced the world to the Macintosh with that useful little device called a mouse and an operating system that de-mystified computer use. And it is fair to say that the Apple computers have come to dominate the market in almost every aspect of creative and publishing work chiefly because they are the technology you do not have to spend that much time thinking about.

What these publishing machines did -- and I cannot believe the manufacturers really understood the favor they were doing us -- was to, in effect, open the door for a reversal in the trend of owning the means of production. In short, the people computers offered the possibility of ordinary persons with ordinary pocketbooks to own the means of production, and thereby loosened the controls over the kinds and forms of ideas that might be transferred from the one to the many. And this is what makes this a revolutionary moment, a moment of real opportunity for those who care to make artistic effort more effective. Look at what the hand-held camcorder has done to democratize the visual record of life everywhere. From that bloody square in China to the streets of Los Angeles, ordinary people are recording powerful images, alternative images to those produced by the established news and entertainment industries. And now the publishing machines are doing as much, and it is possible to combine the power of things like the camcorder with the power of the computer, and to put the result forward without asking permission.

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