Clay Shirky Dear Mr. Sirius, I read with some interest your request to comment on whether Herr Gutenberg’s new movable type is good for books and for scribes. I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about the newly capable printing press, and though the invention is just 40 years old, I think we can already see some of the outlines of the coming changes. First, your question “is it good for books and for scribes?” seems to assume that what is good for one must be good for the other. Granted, this has been true for the last several centuries, but the printing press has a curious property — it reduces the very scarcity of writing that made scribal effort worthwhile, so I would answer that it is great for books and terrible for scribes. Thanks to the printing press, we are going to see more writing, and more kinds of writing, which is wonderful for the reading public, and even creates new incentives for literacy. Because of these improvements, however, the people who made their living from the previous scarcity of books will be sorely discomfited. In the same way that water is more vital than diamonds but diamonds are more expensive than water, the new abundance caused by the printing press will destroy many of the old professions tied to writing, even as it puts in place new opportunities as yet only dimly with us. Aldus Manutius, in Venice, seems to be creating a market for new kinds of writing that the scribes never dreamt of, and which were impossible given the high cost of paying someone to copy a book by hand. There is one thing the printing press does not change, of course, which is the scarcity of publishing. Taking a fantastical turn, one could imagine a world in which everyone had not only the ability to read and write but to publish as well. In such a world, of course, we would see the same sort of transformation we are seeing now with the printing press, which is to say an explosion in novel forms of writing. Such a change would also create enormous economic hardship for anyone whose living was tied to earlier scarcities. Such a world, as remarkable as it might be, must remain merely imaginative, as the cost of publishing will always be out of reach of even literate citizens. Yours, Clay Shirky, Esq.

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