What follows is an interview and discussion I had in Odense, Denmark, with Thomas Pettitt and Lars Ole Sauerberg, two scholars at the University of Southern Denmark, who made a splash in digital media circles with their theory of the “Gutenberg Parenthesis,” the idea that the digital age, rather than solely a leap into the future, also marks a return to practices and ways of thinking that were central to human societies before Johannes Gutenberg’s 15th century invention changed human literacy and the world.
The era that preceded Gutenberg’s invention, the theory goes, was a time of fluidity and “orality”—speeches, plays, songs, and other communications, including news—that weren’t written down, but instead were ephemeral and uncontained, easily shared, manipulated, and changed by each person who experienced them. The printing press, the authors contend, for the first time on a mass scale introduced the idea of fixity, permanence, and “containment.” Ideas were now impressed on a page and literally “bound” forever—essentially unalterable and thus given a new authority, whether it was deserved or not, that oral communication didn’t have.
The technological change led to nothing less than a change in human experience itself, the scholars say, and paved the way for new ways of looking at the world that emphasized separateness and authority: individualism, nation states, etc. The “parenthesis” idea sees the digital age as bringing about a return to earlier, more fluid, less permanent, more connected, modes of communication, and, indeed, of being. Good summaries of the idea
are contained in, oops, flow through Megan Garber’s good post for Nieman Lab from 2010 and a discussion at MIT the same year. (ADDING: a recently revised new paper by Pettitt on parenthesis theory’s implications for privacy is here.) I push back a bit toward the bottom. This Q&A took place last November, which is not that long ago when you think, as we do, in five-hundred-year chunks. (ADDING: Painstakingly transcribed by Peter Sterne,) Iit has been extensively edited but is still purposely long and rambling, as befitting free-flowing communication modes in the post-Gutenberg era. Best read with some lute music in the background.
Dean Starkman: The thing that first got me interested in the Gutenberg Parenthesis idea was learning that Thomas wasn’t a futurist, like a lot of media thinkers, but a medievalist.
Thomas Pettitt: Well it turns out that in some ways they’re the same thing, aren’t they? We are not just moving upwards and onwards, we are moving upwards and backwards. Even though it’s going to be much more technologically sophisticated from now on than it was 50 years ago, in many ways, we are going back to the way things were long before. This is the definition of a “parentheses.” It’s an idea, which interrupts an ongoing idea, and when the interruption’s over, the ongoing idea comes back.
With the right spelling, “media studies” is contained within “mediaeval studies”. One of those neat cabbalistic things that means nothing in itself but is useful for making you think: a medievalist can be a futurist because the Gutenberg Parenthesis tells us the future is medieval.
DS: Got it. One of the important distinctions to think about is, there’s sort of a concept of return, but not a “revolution” in the literal sense, as in revolving 360 degrees to the beginning.
Sauerberg: They are both revolutions, but the second revolution is reversing the first.
DS: But “revolution” isn’t quite right because that turns you to the point where you began.
Pettitt: We’ve played with “return”. We’ve played with the notion of going back where we started—“reversion.” That sounds like we’re going all the way back. If our computers all go dead and we have to start using pen and paper again, that will be a reversion. My current favorite word is “restoration.” So you are restoring the way things were before. Like the Restoration of the monarchy in England after the Civil War. A restoration where things had nonetheless changed in the interim.
Sauerberg: And kept changing.
DS: What’s the mode of communication that existed before the printing press that you think is now being restored?