Post-Gutenberg: A Culture of Ideas

This post, from P. Bradley Robb, originally appeared on Fiction Matters on 10/14/09.

In our modern world, it is difficult to separate the concept of art from the medium it is delivered in. For most of our lives, music has been synonymous with the package it was delivered in – be it vinyl, cassette, or compact disc. Movies are even more difficult to pin down, having existed wholly in their medium as film before expanding into video cassettes and DVDs. And books? Since Gutenberg, books have been a wholly contained identity, where the package and idea were tightly intertwined.

With the blurring of medium and message naturally came entrenched industries dedicated to delivering the package more than idea. Thirty years ago, you had to leave your house to see a movie. A century ago, music was wholly witnessed live. And six hundred years ago, the story and the idea were not typically delivered to the great unwashed masses in books, but orally in a communion between thinker and audience.

Because of the financial requirements of packaging ideas – regardless of delivery method – each industry erected walls, barriers to entry, and in those walls were gates and gatekeepers. These individuals and organizations were tasked with deciding which ideas were worthy of the industry’s money, and the audience’s time. And for a long time, such a concept worked. The industries delivering ideas as product flourished, billions upon billions of dollars were made. The public was largely happy.

Or they were, until the mediums suffered a vast digital destruction. The combined increase in computing power paired with a popularized communications medium meant that the bar to entry was suddenly and significantly lowered. That bar which continues to fall.

I was working as a music journalist when that industry was waking up to this quiet, slow, yet dramatic power shift. For the first time, technology allow a properly motivated individual to remove vast swaths of the music industry. Home recording equipment could be completely purchased for about the same price as a single weekend in a professional studio. Making matters worse, the quality of the new end product was roughly on par with that of former standard. Discerning ears could and did tell the difference, but passionate pioneers were able to blaze forward – many removing the remainder of the music producing chain and selling directly to customers.

You see, it wasn’t Napster that spelled the doom of the music industry, it was Pro Tools and MySpace. These two items tore down the gates going into and coming out of the walled industry. These empowered the solo musician to both create and promote without someone else telling them how or what or where or when. And while the modern music industry is still alive and arguably kicking, the world today is experiencing a musical renaissance never seen before, largely without the Big Four labels.

How does this relate to publishing? The actual mediums bare very little similarity. Music is easily portable and nearly ubiquitous in the daily lives, able to be consumed and shared in small chunks. Books, while quickly reaching that same level of portability, asking much more of the reader in terms of time and attention.

But look at the similarities in disruption that allow me to write and you to read this essay. It was written on a computer which I paid nothing for, on an operating system freely given away, and in a pair of programs (1,2) that give me every ounce of production power that publishing industry had a near monopoly on when I was a child. While musicians have ProTools, writers have the entire computer and we’re waking up to the power of the server.

Read the rest of the post on Fiction Matters.