A question in the summer of this 10th anniversary of the iPhone: Has the device that is perhaps the most revolutionary of all time given us a single magnificent idea? I’m still waiting to see if the iPhone can do what the printing press did for religion and democracy.
I used a smartphone GPS to find my way through the cobblestoned maze of Geneva’s Old Town, in search of a handmade machine that changed the world more than any other invention. Near a 13th-century cathedral in this Swiss city on the shores of a lovely lake, I found what I was looking for: a Gutenberg printing press.
“This was the internet of its day — at least as influential as the iPhone,” said Gabriel de Montmollin, director of the Museum of the Reformation, toying with the replica of Johann Gutenberg’s great invention. It used to take four monks, laboring in a scriptorium with quills over calfskin, up to a year to produce a single book.
With the advance in movable type in 15th-century Europe, one press could crank out 3,000 pages a day. Before long, average people could travel to places that used to be unknown to them — with maps! Medical information passed more freely and quickly, diminishing the sway of quacks. And you could find your own way to God, or a way out of believing in God, with access to formerly forbidden thoughts.
The printing press offered the prospect that tyrants would never be able to kill a book or suppress an idea. Gutenberg’s brainchild broke the monopoly that clerics had on scripture. And later, stirred by pamphlets from a version of that same press, the American colonies rose up against a king and gave birth to a nation.
So, a question in the summer of this 10th anniversary of the iPhone: Has the device that is perhaps the most revolutionary of all time given us a single magnificent idea? Nearly every advancement of the written word through new technology has also advanced humankind.
Sure, you can say the iPhone changed everything. By putting the world’s recorded knowledge in the palm of a hand, it revolutionized work, dining, travel and socializing. It made us more narcissistic — here’s more of me doing cool stuff! — and it unleashed an army of awful trolls. We no longer have the patience to sit through a baseball game without that reach to the pocket. And one more casualty of Apple selling more than a billion phones in a decade’s time: daydreaming has become a lost art.
Still, for all of that, I’m still waiting to see if the iPhone can do what the printing press did for religion and democracy. This year is also the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther posting his 95 theses against the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church; the Geneva museum makes a strong case that the printing press opened more minds than anything else.
The museum’s exhibition — “Print! The First Pages of a Revolution” — quotes Luther as saying that the press was “the greatest and most extraordinary act of Divine Grace.” As a renegade Catholic monk, Luther might never have seen his writings find their way out of a monastery. But through Gutenberg’s democratizing machine, about 300,000 copies of Luther’s provocations were circulated between 1517 and 1520. Christianity would never be the same.
Similarly, it’s hard to imagine the French or American revolutions without those enlightened voices in print.
In the beginning of the written word, about 5,000 years ago, people scrawled information on clay. Their messages were sometimes bawdy, more often banal. The Greeks gave us humor, tragedy and poetry. Scrolls of papyrus were portable; Roman commanders used them as the equivalent of paperbacks, tucked into pockets.
“On the Nature of Things,” a poem from the Roman philosopher Lucretius in the first century B.C., was one of the most “dangerously radical” things ever written, Stephen Greenblatt argued in his book “The Swerve.” Rediscovered and then printed in the early stages of the Renaissance on Gutenberg’s press, the poetic celebration of the good life overturned much of Europe’s dour medieval mindset.
Count Magna Carta, one of the founding documents in the evolution of free societies, and Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” which popularized English vernacular, among the highlights of the thousand years or so when books were made by hand-cramped scribes, or printed from wooden blocks.
Not long after Steve Jobs introduced his iPhone, he said the bound book was probably headed for history’s attic. Not so fast. After a period of rapid growth in e-books, something closer to the medium for Chaucer’s volumes has made a great comeback.
The hope of the iPhone, and the internet in general, was that it would free people in closed societies. But the failure of the Arab Spring, and the continued suppression of ideas in North Korea, China and Iran, has not borne that out. And it’s beyond pathetic that the leader of the free world uses his phone to insult women, or send out bizarre videos of him beating up imaginary reporters.
The iPhone is still young. It has certainly been “one of the most important, world-changing and successful products in history,” as Apple CEO Tim Cook said. But I’m not sure if the world changed for the better with the iPhone — as it did with the printing press — or merely changed.