Move aside Gutenberg, the moving image is the world's greatest innovation

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The world's first movie—and it's still getting buzz.  

I’ve got a beef with a few the world’s thought leaders. This year’s annual Technology Issue of The Atlantic Monthly just came out, along with its list of “The 50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel.”[1] The airplane glided in at #15, while penicillin took its shot at #28. Personal computers made a hard drive for #16. Nothing startling there. But I was surprised and, frankly, indignant to see that motion pictures had been overlooked!

Maybe we’re too close to the subject to realize film’s impact on history, but I believe it's time for a new reassessment of the medium. (By motion pictures, I mean not just film per se, but also its electronic descendant, video.[2]) Movies were a far more important an breakthrough than photography (#29). After all, there’s little that a still camera can catch that an artist can’t. A good painter can recreate a fleeting facial expression; photography is just an easier way to do it. But movies are different. By photographically capturing motion for repeatable playback, they introduced something new to the world.[3] As such, they fulfilled yearnings as old as mankind: the 30,000-year-old Chauvet cave paintings also have images that, when viewed in the light of a flickering torch, might appear to move. (You only have to squint, suspend disbelief and smoke a pipeful of local wacky weeds.)

I predict that motion pictures will come to be viewed as at least as important an invention as Gutenberg’s printing press,[4] which, as it so often does on such lists, scored Atlantic’s #1 position. The printing press’s top spot only makes sense if you hew to the line that goes something like: thanks to printing, literature became available at cheap rates for the masses; thus, anyone who could write had a shot at getting a book published, and anyone who could read could buy it, leading, eventually to a world where Newton’s Arithmetica Universalis could be shelf buddies with Fanny Hill. That's a tidy story, but it’s hindsight talking. As always, the truth is a bit more complicated—and less flattering for the reputation of Gutenberg’s invention.

Let's take a closer look at this, because the first 100 years after the invention of printing mirrors in many ways the first half century of motion pictures. There's a lot to be learned from comparing the two.

The industrial revolution really ought to get credit for the spread of literacy, not Gutenberg’s invention.

Gutenberg's printed books proved to be a tough sell. Potential customers didn't know what to make of the new technology, and they looked askance at his product; in fact, printing's very survival was far from assured. As Daniel Boorstin writes in The Discoverers, “In fifteenth-century Europe innovation itself was an unfamiliar and suspect idea.” How come?

While Gutenberg is thought of as a Renaissance figure, his life actually took place at the tail end of the Medieval Era. Literacy was still a right reserved for the wealthy upper class, and they weren’t exactly a group of early adopters.[5] The print publishers themselves didn’t help. They saw Gutenberg’s invention, not as a key to an information revolution (a concept they probably would have been averse to anyway), but merely as a way to efficiently recreate handwriting: they called their craft ars articialiter scribendi—the art of artificial writing. Gutenberg’s Bible was intended to be art first, a manufactured product second. As such, it was a newfangled concept that horned in on the territory of an army of well-paid, well-connected copyists with a millenniums-long tradition.[6] Boorstein concludes, “In many ways the most interesting period in the history of the printed book is the first century after Gutenberg’s Bible, when we can see the ambivalence of cultivated European readers toward the new technology.” Introducing the printed book in this world would have been somewhat akin to teaching your grandfather how to use Twitter.

The first generation or two of printers went to great lengths to accommodate their customers’ taste for handwritten manuscripts, serving up imitations of the real thing. Intricate hand-drawn illustrations were added after printing, while the text was “distressed” to resemble handwriting. The implications, though, couldn’t be erased: hand-made originals were the superior product and printed books were a knock-off—the pleather of their day.

A few breakthrough opportunities did come the printers' way, but not in the manner you might expect. Clergymen had been instructed to do more preaching from the pulpit, and that called for more Bibles and other writings for them to read and preach from. That demand created an opportunity for the efficiencies of printing. Nevertheless, like their wealthy peers, priests were a conservative lot, not highly motivated to encourage literacy. Thus, Bibles and other religious books remained in the hands of the clergy class.

As printing became more accepted, the technology met with even more negative reactions—not from the educated elite, but from the scribes themselves who were being put out of work. The first book bans were enacted, not on any religious or moral grounds, but to preserve jobs. But it was too little, too late. Books had already come into their own, spreading enlightenment values among the educated class, providing the most courageous among them with intellectual fuel for an age of revolutions. Such gains worked the way they always had: by a small group of enlightened elite acting on behalf of the uneducated masses.

How well did Gutenberg’s press serve the cause of literacy? Printed books were still fantastically expensive and book ownership remained a wealthy person’s prerogative for four more centuries. The world had to wait for mass production to come along in the 19th century before it could have affordable books; in fact, the industrial revolution really ought to get the credit for the spread of literacy, not Gutenberg’s invention.

Even then, printed books and their software—literacy—didn’t penetrate entire continents for centuries. Vast swaths of Africa and South America remain illiterate till today. What about China and Japan? They’d already been printing their own books for hundreds of years and, anyway, their pictographic writing had no use for moveable type. Thus, in Asia, Gutenberg’s invention was disregarded with a transcontinental yawn. His press did change all sorts of social equations—but only in Europe, and only among those at the top of the food chain, and even then it took an awfully long time. Outside that world, not as much happened as we might think.

That’s why I question printing’s number one spot on the Atlantic list. Which brings me to why I think movies deserve more credit than this list (and others) give them. Though separated by five centuries, the similarities between these two eras is telling. These details prove that the moving image—not the printing press—is the greatest breakthrough since the wheel.

As with printing (at first), motion pictures faced skepticism from better-educated people. During the silent era in particular, movies were considered a cheap, less sophisticated alternative to live theater—and, to be honest, the charge was legitimate. (Many, if not most, early movies were soft-core porn.) It wasn’t until film evolved a language of its own—montage, framing, the close-up—that anybody would take it seriously as a visual art form. Even then, perceptions stuck.

The fledgling film industry itself harbored no great illusions about the sophistication of its product: young wolf Alfred Hitchcock met with fierce resistance from film distributor C. M. Woolf, who regarded his films as too pretentiously “arty”: the distributor initially refused to handle Hitch’s first masterpiece, The Lodger, on those grounds—a move that could have ended his directorial career on the spot. (Fortunately, he relented, but only after Ivor Montagu helped re-edit the film to the distributor’s taste.) Throughout his career, Hitch was dogged by what he saw as a lack of appreciation for the artistic merits of his films and, perhaps, for film in general.

How did theater owners compensate for their movies’ lightweight content? As if taking a cue from those sumptuously illustrated early printed books, by the 1920s they were lavishing enormous sums on opulent movie palaces that recreated faux-Venetian palazzos, Greek temples, Babylonian gardens and Egyptian vaults.[7] The sheer luxury of these halls shamed the best that Broadway had to offer, making a night at the movies more fantastical than a night at the opera;[8] in these bedazzled caverns, the Keystone Kops would never again have it so good.

Like those early books, film was perceived as a low-brow invention. Nevertheless, film had—and continues to have—power that books don’t. In fact, though barely a century old, film has already had a greater impact than books on the world and on the individual.

Within 25 years of Edison’s first commercial exhibition in 1894, just about everyone on earth had seen a movie.

Impact on the world
Very unlike Gutenberg’s books, motion pictures were practically an overnight, ‘round the world phenomenon. Movies were easy to duplicate and exhibiting machinery—one-person, hand-cranked peep shows at first; motorized, large screen projectors later—could be quickly built and then operated by a child. Yet, the spectacle of film was so enthralling that even the barest of stories—or even no story—could pull in audiences lined up around the block to see movies in whatever makeshift room could hold them. Never before had such a simple innovation yielded such a sensation.

Film’s unique visual properties also made it easy for quick dispersal. Lacking audio, they could easily communicate with audiences in any country.  A simple trade-out of dialogue or title cards was all that was needed, making it a simple matter to localize a movie for any language.

At the same time, creative control over the final cut wasn’t nearly as centralized as it is today; local presenters had enormous latitude to cut scenes or otherwise manipulate the film to suit local customs and sensibilities. One of Hitchcock’s many pioneering achievements was to popularize the idea of the director as author of the film who has the last word on the final cut. But that started in the 1930s. Before he came along, there was far less control over what shape the film would take as it went around the world; as long as ticket sales held up, nobody really cared. Like the blogosphere, whose success is due, in part, to lax interpretation of copyright laws, this Wild West era of cinematic distribution contributed to the speedy adoption of movie entertainment among diverse cultures.

Thus, within 25 years of Edison’s first commercial exhibition in 1894, just about everyone on earth had seen a movie. Global fandom—and the distribution systems needed to serve it—was a reality.[9] Up till then, no other innovation had made such a huge impact so quickly.

From that global trade emerged a new product: personality. It didn’t take long to realize that the actors who starred in these movies wielded enormous power on a worldwide stage. By the 1920s, movies were sold, not on the basis of a story, but for their star appeal that was central to a “massive industrial enterprise” that “…peddled a new intangible—fame.” Actors like Rudolph Valentino and Mary Pickford could promise a sell-out show anywhere in the world, and this influence led to hyperinflation in stars’ salaries; by 1926 Charlie Chaplin was making $30,000 a week—just over $400,000 in today’s money.

And it wasn’t all entertainment. The first Pathé Newsreel was shown in 1908, and soon news-only theater opened in cities the world over. From then on, audiences had their choice of viewing entertainment mixed with newsreels, or they could walk down the street to a cinema that was basically a prototype of CNN. Newsreels never put newspapers out of business, but they did lay the groundwork for TV news to come later.

Early on, Berlin, Rome and Hollywood were roughly neck and neck in the international movie trade. But World War I devastated those industries in Europe, and the United States thus became the world’s center of movie production. Who could have predicted that American culture and values (for better and worse) would become one of our country’s chief export products?

If my Facebook friends can conceive of the universe as a giant hologram, who should they thank, Immanuel Kant or Captain Kirk? 

Impact on the individual
At least in the Western world, printed books led to great scientific advancements and aided the Protestant Reformation and the Renaissance. But, as mentioned, for centuries, those advances were celebrated mainly among a wealthy few.

Literacy created a new caste system even as it dismantled old ones. Basic literacy—the ability to read a job application or mortgage agreement—was no guarantee of success. It merely assured one's survival. Those who could tout having what E. D. Hirsch calls cultural literacy—familiarity with a set of texts that granted one credibility among better-educated classes—tended to be concentrated among the upper classes. Thus, for many years, it wasn’t that you could read but, instead, what you’d read that was a measure of your upward mobility.

Thanks largely to film and video, that class system is being demolished. Reading, alone, no longer cuts it. In fact, it can be a handicap, causing a person to be labeled as nebbish or backward. Increasingly, and possibly even more important to successful integration and advancement in society, is one’s knowledge of pop culture—and this knowledge is obtained almost entirely through motion pictures (film and TV), along with music—media that operate outside of the printed word.

In the old literacy paradigm, big changes in thinking and worldview took place in academia and then trickled down to the illiterate masses over time. At least, that was the hope. The process could take years—if it was really completed at all. And now things, apparently, have gotten worse. The biggest complaint that cultural literacy proponents have about “kids these days” is that they don’t have any. Read Bernard Schweizer (and other mostly white and male writers) and you’ll conclude that our cultural literacy is in the crapper. Schweizer, a college lit professor, assigned an essay by environmentalist Bill McKibben to a group of freshmen. Few, if any, of his students were able to pick up on the nuances of McKibben’s highly allusive language.[10] Moans Schweizer:
“Obviously, without continuous and rather pedantic explanations from me, my students can grasp only the surface meaning of McKibben’s essay.… Take all the (un-footnoted) references to Gandhi, Hemingway, Miguel de Cervantes, Orwell, Thoreau, and the Bible out of McKibben’s essay, remove all the idiomatic expressions and cut the literary allusions, and you end up with a deflated text that looks as if it had been gone over by a censor’s pen in some weird dystopia. Little do we know that a large proportion of our young students are already inhabiting such a world.”[11]
So much for the trickle-down of ideas. We’re back where we started: there are forms of literacy that still separate that haves from the have nots. As Schweizer states:
“But that does not mean that this kind of cultural literacy has ceased to be relevant. Indeed, I believe it is still alive and well, but that it is now cultivated only in a narrow circle of the privileged classes. The reason I don’t see much evidence of this shared knowledge in my own classroom is that I do not, as a rule, encounter the products of the country’s elite preparatory school systems. What I’m saying, then, is that the issue of cultural literacy is socio-economically coded.”
Wow. That sounds bleak. Unfortunately, Schweizer is only telling part of the story. It’s true that such literacy is fast disappearing, but it is only one kind of literacy—and it’s of the same flavor that caused previous generations to mourn the loss of Latin as a required subject. Having been steeped myself in the canonical texts Schweizer describes, I’m witnessing my own dinosaurification. While I’m sad to see such literacy go—and I do think something important is lost in its passing—it’s hardly anything new. 

Conservative thinkers such as Hirsch and Allan Bloom are our modern prophets of doom. But they are wrong, and their lamentations ensconce them in the past. The changes they identify don’t automatically imply that people are getting any dumber than their previous generation or that they are less-equipped to take on the daunting challenges we now face.[12] In fact, new forms of literacy—led by the moving image—are stepping up to become the cultural currency ideally suited for a new generation and the challenges and opportunities it faces. 

Reading for reading’s sake is declining—especially when it comes to the classics. It’s getting its ass beat by film and video. But that doesn’t mean the important messages are getting lost.

In a matter of months, one film can accomplish what it formerly took a book years to do. For example, except for a few philosophy nerds, few people have actually read Nietzsche. But the runaway success of Groundhog Day—Danny Rubin’s adaptation of Nietzsche’s The Gay Science—brought the old Immoralist’s particular brand of fatalism to the world in less than a year. Ever since, millions have used this movie as a catchphrase to describe the existential grind of their careers and dead-end relationships.

Even fewer people have heard of the 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, but all you really need to know about his classic book that examines the nature of reality—The World as Will and Representation—is right there in The Matrix.[13] If you’re just starting a new job, it’s likely that a coworker will soon come over to your desk and offer you “the red pill or the blue pill,” that is, to show you the “reality” of your office politics. Between the two of you, you’ll know what he means—and it will be understood that this is an ironic bastardization of the original concept—and it will conjur up a whole set of ideas about experience and reality and so on that originated in Schopenhauer (actually, Kant, if you want to get technical) but that you got from a Hollywood blockbuster.[14] Then, on your coffee break, you might free-associate your way from there over to Brian Greene’s TED talk on string theory and the multiverse, a topic you might never seek out in a book. 

It could be argued that some of the nuance of the original thought is lost in translation[15] to the 90-minute format and glitzy graphics of film. That’s true, as far as it goes. But the impact of these movies goes deep and they do invite repeated watching, which in turn, encourages deeper reflection on these heady ideas. (Christopher Nolan’s movies have to be seen at least twice before you can even make sense of the damn things. And they’re popular, which is proof enough for me that moviegoers are indeed an evolving cohort.) And that flashy CGI imagery? In the hands of the best practitioners, it can be used to wordlessly impart philosophies and meaning that formerly took tens of thousands of words. I don’t have any figures to back this up, but I suspect that more people are stopping to think about the nature of reality in philosophical terms as a result of The Matrix than most college students who've slogged their way through Shopenhauer’s labyrinthine syntax (and then promptly forgot it). If my Facebook friends can conceive of the universe as a giant hologram, who should they thank, Immanuel Kant or Captain Kirk? 

The fact that a film can go about all this business in just a couple of hours is kind of a miracle. This type of cinematic literacy has yet to fully accounted for. Such is the impact of motion pictures on the individual.

Because of its power to persuade, early Soviet and Nazi leaders seized on film as their prime tool to unify their peoples under their specialized brands of socialism. Sure, these are cautionary tales, but the real lesson is that if you’re looking to spread ideas quickly, look to motion pictures, not books. Other more positive changes have also come about a result of the moving image. Film footage brought back from the Vietnam forever changed our attitude towards war as a solution to international problems. In Oregon, the TV documentary "Pollution in Paradise" kick-started the state's environmental movement; its policies remain among the most progressive in the world.

While Michael Pollan's books have had a huge influence on our attitude toward the Big Business of food, it took the documentary film Super Size Me to nudge fast food chains to offer healthier menu choices.

When it comes to social mobility, even in the upper echelons of society your ability to quote Thoreau may or may not win you any points. But if you don't know the origin of the phrase "May the Force be with you," you're screwed. 

The strength of reading literacy is that the reader has more control over the content. He or she can easily pause to reflect, re-read portions to savor them or, increasingly, link to related content for a more in-depth understanding of the material. Video doesn't really allow for that all too easily. That is, the moving image has a flow that desires not to be interrupted. But this freedom is also reading's limitation: reading is generally a single-user situation. Typically, we read alone. 

That problem was solved by film. Initially, like books and magazines, films were exhibited in a single-user format too: think of those “peep shows” you can still see at amusement parks and old-timey pizza parlors. Those machines went away because it was quickly determined that more money could be made (and the spectacle enhanced) by projecting the moving image onto a large screen. Enter the age of the storefront nickelodeon followed by the aforementioned movie palaces. After that, TV came into the home and by the 1950s, motion pictures were serving everyone from large public crowds to solitary shut-ins. Books could never hope to compete. Lately the circle has closed: with the advent of smart phones and other mobile devices, movies are increasingly being viewed on devices that, like those peep shows, are designed for an audience of one. And it's a point of doctrine in the social media world that if you want your message to go viral, use video, not text. Unlike writing, the moving image is all things to all people. 

Gutenberg's press, combined with efficiencies created by the industrial revolution, brought 5,000 years of written literacy to its logical conclusion. Motion pictures brought an end to that and ushered in a new era of post-reading literacy based on the moving image. Thanks to its astonishingly fast penetration of and acceptance in the global marketplace, motion picture technology—both film and video—has brought ideas large and small to all nations and language groups. It has also been the key to reshaping global society on a scale and with a whiplash rapidity never before seen. In short, the moving image has brought the entire human race closer together than any other technological development. That's why it's the greatest innovation since the wheel. Here’s to the next 5,000 years.      

[1] Weighing in was a panel of 12 scientists, historians and technologists, along with Atlantic Monthly’s own senior editor, Alexis Madrigal, who evidently pulled rank to make the panel contributed to the list.

[2] I’m also distinguishing film and video from their exhibitionary components—the projector and the television (#45)—both of whose utility depends on the former’s existence.

[3] Remember why old Muybridge did it? He needed to settle an age-old dispute about whether or not a galloping horse’s four legs ever leave the ground all at once. (They do.) Thus, from its beginnings, film has been used to show us realities that we can’t perceive with the naked eye.

[4] Specifically, the suite of reusable movable-type technology that Gutenberg developed.

[5] Just for perspective, Galileo’s heresy went to trial nearly 200 years after Gutenberg printed his Bible.

[6] Even today, original art is esteemed more highly than quality prints. Only through original art can you literally remain in touch with the artist behind it.

In the Middle Ages, the written word was revered in a way that’s quite foreign to our Information Age. Possession of a handwritten book invoked a special relationship to the personality behind the content, be it a work of philosophy or erotica. In this relationship, the scribe held a priestly role, intermediating between the two. The scribe’s handwriting served to enhance that relationship: subtle changes in his script were like commentary that could emphasize important details or signal the presence of humor.

[7] They could well afford to do so: at the time, studio heads owned the theater chains, distribution and, of course, actors, directors and writers (under contract) and could name their price for tickets. Ticket prices tripled in America in 1920s, going from $.50 at the beginning of the decade to as much as $1.65, which adjusted for inflation, would be the equivalent of $22.50, making today’s first run prices a bargain. That’s why studio heads were called moguls. That’s also why their vertical oligopolies were broken up in 1948 when the U.S. Supreme Court decided they’d been violating antitrust laws (United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc.). (In Vertigo, various characters’ talk of the old days, when men had “the power and the freedom,” might also be a nod to that studio system for whose abuses the movie is a metaphor.)

[8] Maybe the contrast between Hollywood schlock and these exquisite movie palaces was the real joke behind the Marx Brothers’ high-comedy slapstick extravaganza A Night at the Opera.

[9] The recent discovery of Hitch’s assistant directorial effort, The White Shadow, (1924) reveals a lot about the international scope of British films at that time, not to speak of the much more powerful American and German film industries. As silent films were passed from one theater to the next in their international travels, they would come to rest in far-flung lands like Argentina or Czechoslovakia; New Zealand’s North Island town of Hastings was the last stop for The White Shadow. Because the films would have been rather worn out by then and shipping was expensive, there they would stay. The silent film industry was truly global.

[10] This makes me wonder whether the problem wasn’t with those students but with McKibben’s presumably brilliant and well-reasoned essay. In fact, the assumption Scweizer makes—blaming the audience for the failure of the writer to connect with it —pretty much sums up why environmental writers like McKibben—sexy though they and their cause may be—have difficulty convincing anyone outside their circle jerk of fellow believers.

[11] "Cultural Literacy: Is It Time to Revisit the Debate?" Thought & Action 25 (Fall 2009)

[12] Generation Y may not know its Thoreau from a hole in the ground, but as pointed out in a recent article in the New York Times by Emily Esfahani Smith and Jennifer L. Aaker, they’re much sharper than we give them credit for.
Recent surveys show that they are repudiating the materialistic excesses of previous generations and that “meaningful work was among the three most important factors defining career success.”

[13] The film’s co-directors, the Wachovski brothers, assigned this book to Keanu Reeves as preparation for his role as Neo.

[14] And what is Monsters, Inc., but Schopenhauer for tots?

[15] Another great example of bringing existential ennui to the masses.


Tom said…
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