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

Why is it always Gutenberg, Gutenberg, Gutenberg? 

The world's first movie, by Eadward Muybridge.  

A few years ago, The Atlantic Monthly assembled a panel of historians to compile a list of the 50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel. The airplane (#15), penicillin (#28) and personal computers (#16) all got due cred. As did the moldboard plow, which ranked #30.  

Gutenberg's printing press snagged the #1 slot. Again.

What did motion pictures get? Not a damn thing. 

That ain't right. By photographically capturing motion for repeatable playback, film introduced something new to the world, fulfilling a dream as old as mankind: 20,000 years before Mickey Mouse, the artists of France's Lascaux caves painted murals designed come alive in the flickering lamplight. Writing is a newcomer, showing up only 5,000 years ago, and Gutenberg went to press around 1450.   

What did the printing press do for us, really? Not as much as you might think. The generally accepted story is that printing made literature available at cheap rates for the masses. For writers, it was a windfall: just about anyone had a shot at getting a book published, leading, eventually to a world where Newton’s Arithmetica Universalis could be shelf buddies with 50 Shades of Grey. But the rest of the story is a bit more complicated—and less flattering for 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. 

A tough sell.

At first, Gutenberg's first products didn't exactly fly off the shelf. 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. Daniel Boorstin writes in The Discoverers that “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 reserved for the wealthy upper class—and they weren’t exactly a group of early adopters. Publishers, on the other hand, saw Gutenberg’s invention, not as a key to an information revolution (a concept they probably would have been averse to anyway), but merely a way to efficiently recreate handwriting. 

Consequently, “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,” concludes Boorstein. Introducing the printed book was akin teaching your grandfather how to use Twitter.

Early publishers went to great lengths to accommodate their customers’ taste for handwriting, serving up imitations of the real thing. Intricate hand-drawn illustrations were added after printing, while the text was “distressed” to resemble the touch of a scribe. The implications, though, couldn’t be erased: handmade originals were the superior product and printed books were a knock-off. Slightly cheaper, they were still fantastically expensive, affordable only to the privileged few who nevertheless had the means—and social incentives—to support their local scribe by buying the real thing. 

The scribes did push back. This army of well-paid, well-connected copyists with a millenniums-long tradition went on the PR and legislative offensive. The first book bans had nothing to do with morals and everything to do with preserving jobs. But print stuck around, eventually spreading enlightenment values among the educated class, providing 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 illiterate masses.

How well did Gutenberg’s press serve the cause of literacy? Due to its high cost, book ownership remained a wealthy person’s prerogative for four more centuries. The world had to wait for mass production in the 19th century before it could have affordable books. From that perspective, the industrial revolution should be credited for the spread of literacy, not Gutenberg’s invention.

The fact is, printed books and their software—literacy—ignored entire continents for centuries. 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 their pictographic writing had no use for moveable type. In Asia, Gutenberg’s invention was disregarded with a transcontinental yawn. 

Gutenberg's 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. 

The world's first cat video, by Muybridge.

A new caste system

With the industrial revolution came reading. Yet, literacy created a new caste system even as it dismantled old ones. Basic literacy—the ability to read a job application or mortgage agreement—merely assured survival. But, as E. D. Hirsch has pointed out, cultural literacy became the new secret handshake that kept power concentrated among the upper classes. It wasn’t that you could read but, instead, what you’d read that guaranteed your upward mobility.

Gutenberg's invention did change the world, but in a roundabout way, and only after centuries of work. With film, the changes are far more dramatic and swift. That’s why I question printing’s number one spot on the Atlantic list—and I believe motion pictures deserve more credit. 

The most revolutionary invention of all time

Like printing, motion pictures were dismissed by educated folk. Early on, film was a cheap, less sophisticated alternative to live theater: a lot of it was softcore 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 held its products in low regard: young Alfred Hitchcock's career was nearly brought to an end when the film distributor C. M. Woolf initially refused to handle his first masterpiece, The Lodger, because he felt it was too pretentiously “arty.” 

Impact on the world

The story of the rise of movies evokes, well, meteors. Rockets. Cheetahs. Unlike Gutenberg’s books, motion pictures were practically an overnight, ‘round the world phenomenon. Even the barest of stories—or even no story—pulled in audiences lined up around the block, cramming into whatever makeshift auditorium could host them. 

Film was easy to duplicate and quickly bring to market. Exhibiting machinery—hand-cranked peep shows at first; motorized, large screen projectors later—could be quickly built and then operated by just about anyone. Lacking audio, the flickering images crossed borders to communicate with audiences around the world.  A simple switch-out of dialogue cards made it a cinch to localize a movie for any language.

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

At the same time, creative control over the final cut wasn’t nearly as centralized as it is today. Before Hitchcock came along and asserted the principle of film authorship, there was far less control over what shape the film would take as it toured the world. Local presenters routinely altered sections of the film to suit local customs and tastes. 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.

Within 25 years of Edison’s first commercial exhibition in 1894, practically everyone on earth had seen a movie. Global fandom—and the distribution systems needed to serve it—was a reality. Books never had it so good.

From that global trade emerged a new product: personality. Actors who starred in these movies wielded enormous power on a worldwide stage. By the 1920s, tickets were selling, not on the basis of story, but for their star appeal. Actors like Rudolph Valentino and Mary Pickford could promise a sell-out show anywhere on earth, and this influence led to hyperinflation in salaries. By 1926 Charlie Chaplin was making $30,000 a week—half a mil in today’s money.

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, making American culture and values one of our country’s chief export products.

And it wasn’t all entertainment. The first Pathé Newsreel of 1908 launched a revolution of news-only theaters London to Tokyo—the prototype of CNN—begetting the first generation of news TV junkies. 

Impact on the individual

Within a few short years, the moving image acquired—and continues to hold—power that books never really had and may never have. Hear me out.

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. Intellectual advancements in academia 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. But now that creek is running dry. 

Bernard Schweizer, a college lit professor, expressed his frustration that few, if any, of his students were able to pick up on the literary nuances of a reading he'd assigned. Moaned the professor:
“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,... 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.” (11)
So much for the trickle-down of ideas. 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 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 in the Great Books is fast disappearing, but that's only one kind of literacy. While I love the classics, there's a big part of me that wants to say good riddance.  

Thanks largely to film and video, Schweizer's class system is being demolished. Today, it takes a knowledge of pop culture—film, TV and pop music—to signal one's cultural literacy. And it's freely available to everyone.

The lamentations of conservative thinkers such as Schweizer, E. D. Hirsch and Allan Bloom 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. 

In a matter of months, one film can accomplish what it once took a book years to do. Have you actually read Nietzsche? Me neither. 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, changing office chat and happy hour conversations forever. 

If my Facebook friends can conceive of the universe as a giant hologram, who should they thank, Schopenhauer or Neo? 

Even fewer people have heard of the 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, but all you need to know about his classic book The World as Will and Representation is right there in The Matrix. (13) Want to know how? Take take the red pill. 

It could be argued that some of the nuance of the original thought of these great thinkers is lost in translation to the 90-minute format and glitzy graphics of film. But the impact of these movies goes deep and they do invite repeated watching, which in turn, encourages deeper reflection. Pothead philosophers, rise up! Or whatever!

Seriously, it's as the visionary science fiction writer Philip K. Dick once observed: "The symbols of the divine initially show up at the trash stratum." Nowhere are his words more true than in the "trash" output of film and video. You'll find the sweet divine there—with no bitter elitist aftertaste.

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 that 19th century German philosopher'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: Schopenhauer or Neo? 

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.

Time for change

And the moving image does promote change at the grassroots level. In the 1960s, Footage brought back from Vietnam forever changed our attitude toward 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.

After literally centuries of police brutality, the Black Lives Matter movement has started to see real gains in government policy because supporters are able to point phone's video camera at violent incidents when they occur. 

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. 

Do the math

Here's an aspect of media power that's quite profound: film and video tend towards social sharing. Initially, films were exhibited in a single-user format (like a book or magazine): think of those wind-up peep shows you can still find at old-timey pizza parlors. But exhibitors quickly determined that more money could be made (and the spectacle enhanced) by projecting the moving image onto a large screen. After that, TV came into the home and by the 1950s, motion pictures were serving everyone simultaneously from large theater crowds to barooms solitary shut-ins. Lately, the circle has closed: mobile phones are once again presenting movies to an audience of one—just like those peep shows—yet they're always accompanied by that differentiation "share this" button. Unlike writing, the moving image is all things to all people. 

Reading, by contrast, is private, solitary experience. That's its strength! But think about the mathematical implications: tending as it does to a shared experience, the moving picture will always have exponentially more power than reading. 

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. 

For better or worse, the moving image has brought the entire human race closer together than any other technological development. The moving image was here long before writing. And it may be here long after. 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 Wachowskis, 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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