The Gutenberg Parenthesis


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It is the period of human history where communication was dominated by writing. Before that it was oral communication and after which it was digital. Johannes Gutenberg invented the first commercially successful moveable type printing press – hence the name.

Let me preface by saying I’m not sure I fully agree with the thesis being presented here, but it is sort of interesting.

If you look at that last sentence, you might notice that the word *parenthesis* contains the word “thesis,” and that’s not by accident — a “thesis” is an idea or an established premise, and “paren” comes from the Greek prefix “para-,” meaning roughly ‘near’ or ‘alongside.’

Humanity has been speaking for maybe the last two million years, anywhere to as recently as the last fifty thousand, depending on who you ask; it’s not exactly what you’d call an exact science. So, for a long time, human tradition has been passed down orally, from one human’s words to another human’s ears. We’ve only really been literate for maybe the past six thousand years, and even then, the written word didn’t truly become dominant until Gutenberg invented the printing press in the fifteenth century.

At that point, the written word started to become an accepted source of truth — if something was written down in a book or a manuscript, it had an air of legitimacy that started to disappear from the purely spoken word, or the word that someone wrote down on their own.

Additionally, printed books impose a fierce sort of regimentation; words are written into paragraphs, which are arranged like so and bound into these curious forms called “books.”

So, what does it mean to call the last five hundred years “Gutenberg’s parenthesis”? Well, in grammar and rhetoric, a parenthetical statement offers a digression, usually explanatory in nature, to an otherwise-complete statement, *that then returns to what was being discussed before*.

We’re starting to see the supremacy of the printed book change, bit by bit; Wikipedia can be more accurate than the Encyclopedia Britannica, and you can get a lot of information from sources that aren’t an accepted, printed book. Even *this very subreddit* can be taken as an example of the closing of Gutenberg’s parenthesis!

Hopefully, that’s a good explanation. 🙂