Mohammad Al-Ubaydli’s blog

Some lessons for wiki publishing from Gutenberg’s time

Posted in History, People / organisations, Technology by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on October 23, 2007

Take a look at this page:


It is from a rare Blackletter Bible (1497) printed in Strasbourg by J.R. Grueninger. The coloured chapter initials were hand written after the page was printed. Other famous incunabula include the Gutenberg Bible of 1455, the Peregrinatio in terram sanctam of 1486, printed and illustrated by Erhard Reuwich.

If you look closely at the image you can see the several letters have been painted in by hand. This is because the publishers of the time were trying to recreate the effects of the handwritten manuscripts. In other words, apart from the extra expense and technological challenges of dealing with a new medium of publishing – the printing press – they were also reintroducing the problems and labor intensiveness of handwriting.

Think about this the next time you are trying to use a wiki page as a Word document. This is a new publishing medium and its advantages are in authoring that is fast and collaborative. The presentation is supposed to be minimal. Do not spend your time trying to recreate a Word document’s formatting.

Incidentally, there are a couple of other lessons that can be drawn from Gutenberg’s time. First, Europe’s scientific community benefited from synchronicity. Prices of books did drop, eventually, but the real early gain was that one scientist’s book would be simultaneously available for purchase by other European scientists. For example, in the 13th century it took decades for Fibonnaci’s Liber Abaci to be copied and reach European countries outside of Italy. This was a shame because only with its arrival in a country did the local learned community get to learn the multiplications tables that you and I took for granted during primary school. By contrast the printing press meant that Principia Mathematica could spread very quickly.

Do not underestimate the utility of the daily e-mail feature in enterprise wiki software like Socialtext. In my company’s research team we use the daily e-mail to learn what each of us has been up to in their research and to build on each other’s work.

Finally, it is worth remembering that Gutenberg had to declare bankruptcy and that he did not make money from his bible publishing activities. On the other hand, perhaps his most lucrative activity was printing indulgences for the Catholic church. New technology requires new business models and perhaps the one thing that won’t make you money is reproducing the products of the old, established technologies.