posted Jun 02, 2003
in Communication Ethics

Communication Ethics book part for Gutenberg: Books, Magazines, Newspapers. (This is an automatically generated summary to avoid having huge posts on this page. Click through to read this post.)

Gutenberg's invention added another possibility. By lowering cost-per-copy and time-per-copy by orders of magnitude, it became practical to run thousands of copies of a book and sell each of them at a lower price then a single hand copy would cost. A significant time investment was required to set up each run, though, and that became a new constraining factor. With this new ease of replication, the first rumblings of copyright law began, but it was still a very simple domain, so the laws were simple, at least by modern standards.

Another side effect of Gutenberg's invention was the ability to reach an unprecedented number of people with the same message, because of the sheer number of copies that could be cranked out and delivered to people, rather then requiring the users to come to one of the rare copies of the content. This introduces the notion of the scale of communication; throughout history, we have always treated communication reaching many people quite differently from private, 1-to-few communication. Perhaps one of the most important effects was that such technology made it much easier to spread propaganda. Before such easy printing, propaganda required a network of people to verbally communicate it to the targets; printed propaganda, combined with wide-spread literacy, enabled much smaller groups to effectively use propaganda, which has obvious large effects on the fluidity of a society and the intensifying of common discourse.

As the printing press technology improved, people could set up content for the press faster. The lowering of the cost-to-setup enabled the invention of newspapers (and by extensions all periodicals), which are basically cost-effective periodic books. A new practical content distribution solution appeared, and it too affected the law. People wanted to use this new platform for political purposes, but the centralized nature of the printing press made it easy to shut down if a powerful person disliked what the newspaper said. To counter this, our ethical concepts of free speech and the freedom of the press, initially synonymous, were created. In America we even get this guaranteed as part of the first amendment to our constitution; your country may vary. Printing was a major improvement over hand copying, but it is not a perfect information distribution system. The most obvious problem is the need for physical distribution of the printed materials, which was a major part of the cost. The necessities of daily/weekly/monthly distribution to hundreds or thousands of points for periodicals within a subscribing area required a huge infrastructure investment, and non-periodicals needed some infrastructure too, though it wasn't as demanding. There also need to be enough readers (amount of use) to make it economical to print a given newspaper.

Post-Gutenberg Practical Information Transmission

You'll note the hand-copying blob is still there. That's because it was every bit as practical to hand-copy things before the printing press as it was after; that almost nobody chose to do it for book-sized communications means that they felt they had a better choice, but the choice was still there. To this day, hand-copying is still the preferred method of communication in many smaller domains, such as jotting down addresses, phone number, and simple notes. Rarely, if ever, does a truly new form of communication completely displace an older one.

 

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