Posted by: patenttranslator | November 6, 2010

Freedom of the Press Is No Longer Guaranteed Only to Those Who Own One

“Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”

A. J. Liebling

It is said that Johannes Gutenberg came up with the idea of the printing press with movable letters when he was observing a wine press in 1436 near the city of Mainz in Germany’s Rhine valley. A type of printing press was already known since the 11th century in China, but not in Europe. We should be grateful that Gutenberg enjoyed the vineyards and probably also his wine, because without wine, it is possible that Gutenberg would not have experienced his satori (悟り, enlightenment) moment back in 1436 which is also referred to in patentese as “inventive step”. The old Latin proverb “in vino veritas” (in wine there is truth) proved to be true once again in more ways than one. Johannes Gutenberg, a wine drinker, inventor and thinker, thus invented the printing press – the most powerful weapon available to humankind for more than half a millenium in the fight against despotism. The printing press then led to translation of the Bible from the Latin Vulgate into German by Martin Luther, into English by John Wycliff and into many other national languages and as a result, Latin was gradually replaced by these national languages. And because the Catholic Church then no longer had a monopoly on interpreting the Bible, this caused a major upheaval in many countries, which usually happens when people start thinking for themselves.

It is also said that in 1998, more than five centuries later, a reporter asked Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, what kind of competition he was afraid of. Bill Gates said that he was not afraid of his competition. Presumably, he knew his competitors and he knew how to fight them. What he was afraid of, he said, were guys working in a garage on something that he did not know about. And he was exactly right. There were two guys working, not in a garage but in a dorm as it turned out, probably exactly in that moment on something that Bill Gates did not know about. These two guys then called this something that Bill Gates did not know about Google.

Internet and search engines, and Google in particular, then caused more upheaval in the society than probably even Bill Gates could have imagined in 1998. But it did not stop there. Everybody now owns a printing press. You don’t really need one any more, you can go for example to WordPress.com and start interpreting the Bible or anything else that you think has been misinterpreted for centuries or since the last election the way it makes sense to you. You can also use your cell phone to film a crime in progress – for some reason it’s usually cops beating up on people – and put it on Youtube, which is now owned by Google. If enough people find out about your film clip, it could “go viral” and traditional media will have to react to it if everybody knows about it anyway. Even your blog is no small thing, depending on whether you have something to say. This blog by Margaret and Helen on WordPress, two ladies in their eighties in  wheelchairs, has now almost 4 million hits. People like these two old ladies are real competition to CNN.com now. And I personally find them much more trustworthy.

There is another quote by A. J. Liebling that I really like:”People everywhere confuse what they read in newspapers with news”. But perhaps this is also not true as much anymore. Unfortunately, there is not much news in newspapers these days. It takes me only a few minutes to go through two newspapers every morning when I drink my coffee because only rarely do I find articles in them that I want to read. The people who own major newspapers may still think that they have a monopoly on news and on interpreting what is called the news these days. But if fewer and fewer people read these newspapers, and almost no young people read them anymore, how relevant will these newspapers still be 30 years from now?

You could say that unlike most of us who are at least in their fifties, young people don’t read newspapers anymore because they are not as inquisitive as the young people in previous generations used to be, and it could be true. We grew up reading books, newspapers and magazines, they grew up playing stupid computer games. You can learn a few things from Dickens, Twain or Dostoyevsky if you pay attention, but what can you possibly learn from “Dungeons and Dragons” or from “Final Fantasy”? How is a computer game going to make you a better person?

But it is also possible that the young generation has figured out what their clueless parents don’t know yet: you can’t really learn anything worth knowing from the newspapers and news programs on TV any more. And if that is the case, then it makes much more sense to spend the time that I spend frantically looking, mostly in vain, for something worth reading in my paper – doing something that does make sense, such as downloading music to your iPod.

As Timothy Leary put it in 1967: “Turn on (your iPod), tune in, drop out“.

I have a feeling that the next few decades will be really interesting, at least as interesting as the sixties.

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