The Gutenberg Principle

I have long been talking about the social media revolution in the context of the invention of the printing press and moveable type and the fact that Gutenberg cemented a marriage between content and distribution which the phenomenon called social media is now separating – allowing content to free itself from its means of distribution. I think this dates back to an excellent Economist feature back in April 2006 – which used Gutenberg’s moveable type and the moveable type blogging platfrom as illustrations of the book-ends to the era of mass media, but didn’t take the analogy much further than that.

Until recently I have focused, as did the Economist feature, on the relevance of Gutenberg’s marriage between content and distribution in-so-far as it shaped the media and through the media, wider society. However, I have just written a lengthy article for the journal of financial services management consultants Capco and as part of the thinking behind that have come to realise that what I now call the Gutenberg principle does not just shape society by the way it shapes the media, it has actually directly shaped the development of almost every institution that has emerged in the last 600 years.

Stated as simply as possible, the Gutenberg principle is that “the mass distribution of information is possible, but expensive and therefore institutionalised”. Looking at the financial services sector I came to recognise that banks and banking are as much a direct function of the Gutenberg principle as are newspapers – they are all institutionalised mediators of information. The only reason that banks are not yet being directly affected by the post-Gutenberg world is because we haven’t yet worked out the structures necessary to bring collective and crowd-based mediation to areas such as matching people who have money with people who want money (although we are starting to see this in things such prosper.com).

The more you look for it, the more you see the presence of the Gutenberg principle everywhere and realise that it could possible be the most important (yet hidden) structural component of modern society. It is only the emergence of a world that doesn’t conform to the Gutenberg principle that is affording us the ability to understand and recognise what might be called Gutenberg dependency.

Unfortunately I can’t share the full text of this article yet – until Capco have published it in a good old fashioned, Gutenberg dependent, printed volume (albeit one which then allows pdf download of the articles) which is due out in December. In the meantime I have become engaged on a mission to identify examples of Gutenberg dependency – and will endeavour to post or even tweet about them.

However, as a taster of the article, which I believe I am at liberty to publish electronically, here are the concluding two paragraphs:

We are just starting to recognise that we standing in the twilight of a world that has lasted for 500 years. It is a world which has become shaped by the institutionalisation of the information that flows between individuals. The world we are moving into is one where new technologies are making the process of institutionalised mediation obsolescent. Information can flow between one individual and all of the potential individuals for whom that information might be of relevance, without any form of institutionalised intervention except the provision of a freely available technological infrastructure.

It is unlikely that power and influence in the world that is now forming will lie in the control of channel. Instead it will be vested in forms of community, which will have a tendency to exclude any forms of institutional interference, control or ownership. This new world is in its infancy, but its principal characteristics are starting to become apparent as is the significant transformational challenge for organisations that wish to manage the transition from one world to the next. It is only by understanding the shifts that are taking place and switching investment from channel based assets and competencies into assets and competencies that reflect the collaborative, collective and communal characteristics of the post-Gutenberg world that organisations will be able to protect themselves from functional obsolescence.

Update (posted following receipt of third comment below).  The full article is here.

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