The Gutenberg Pause is almost over

, Friday, 26th September 2014 11:58 CST
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gutenberg-pauseThe Gutenberg Pause is the period of time between the invention of the printing press and the end of this decade. It lasted less than 600 years.

Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440. Until then, human communication across time and space was almost entirely oral, and human knowledge was stored in our ancestors’ brains. Since then, human knowledge has been stored and primarily communicated in written form. The Gutenberg Pause will end when knowledge is primarily communicated and stored in oral form, the form most natural to human beings.

Human capacity for speech became possible approximately 100,000 years ago, although scientists have recently found that species in existence as long as 500,000 years ago may have had the physical capacity for speech. This good luck of evolution was accompanied by an increase in processing capacity that gave us the ability to control this new, very complex, mechanical apparatus.

Thanks to language we were able to transfer knowledge across space, from one mobile person to another, and across time, from one generation to the next. By today’s standards this wasn’t terribly efficient, but compared to the knowledge sharing abilities of other species it was a quantum leap. Thanks to language we developed the world we live in today. Chimpanzees, despite sharing 96% of our DNA, still live exactly as they did tens of thousands of years ago.

About 5,000 years ago, we invented writing, which allowed us to begin storing this transferred knowledge in a more permanent, reliable way. Were it not for writing, it’s unlikely that we’d have access to Homeric epics today. Although the existence of Aboriginal Songlines proves that stories can survive millennia via oral transmission, thanks to writing, we know about Greek States, Greek politics, and Greek politicians that existed long before the Common Era. We know nothing similar about pre-colonial Australians.

Although writing on stones and parchment allowed us to preserve knowledge outside ourselves, it remained a very secondary form of storage, because its reproduction was so laborious. Most knowledge was still stored and transferred directly from human brain to human brain. The printing press changed that. The earliest presses allowed thousands of Bibles to be created in the time it took a scribe to create a single one, with far fewer errors. When Gutenberg invented his printing press, the written word became the primary vessel of human knowledge. The spoken word lost its preeminence, because it was fallible and inefficient.

Until the invention of audio recording in the mid 19th Century we had no way of storing speech. Analogue tape recording allowed us to store speech _relatively_ inexpensively, although its cost was still high enough that even media broadcasters didn’t record *all* of their output. Early BBC broadcasts were ephemeral.

The invention of inexpensive digital recording was a game-changer. It has allowed individuals to store their personal audio and video recordings. The cost of digital is dropping so quickly that people are starting to consider recording everything they hear and see.

Recorded speech can now almost replace writing as a permanent store of human knowledge. I say almost, because writing has an extraordinarily useful property: random access.

Thanks to tables-of-contents and indices, we don’t need to read an entire book to find the information we want. The digitization of books has made this process even more efficient, and indices are no longer approximations. This precision gives us access to derivative information, information that is only accessible through computation. We can, for example, easily count the words in a particular Bible, or extract the topics discussed in this Bible.

Thanks to automated speech recognition (ASR), we now have the ability to randomly access recorded speech, and this has also given us the ability to access derivative information contained in these recordings. But this capability is rare, as rare as books before Gutenberg.

Before this decade is out, this will no longer be true. The words contained in all audio recordings will be searchable, and text will no longer be the primary store of human knowledge.

The Gutenberg Pause will end.

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