McLuhan and the Gutenberg Galaxy
Technological determinists have always assumed that technology proceeds autonomously, dragging society in its wake, forcing it to adapt. They think that technology arises mostly out of serendipity, and then society eventually finds the appropriate uses for it, and only then do certain social changes follow from that choice. For example, the stirrup, it is thought, did much to create the birth of horseback warfare, and the growing importance of landed knights in feudal society… but what if certain technologies are planned? What if there are forces controlling their creation and introduction into society at large? What if the social changes that result from these technologies are intended , rather than unintended, by certain groups? Such a perspective might turn technological determinism on its head, so to speak.
Marshall McLuhan wrote a good deal about the “Gutenberg Galaxy” – the ‘constellation’ of changes wrought on European society after the German of that name figured out how to turn a winepress into a holder for movable type – in other words, a printing press – in the 15th century. Certainly, the printing press, besides making books available beyond just a small literate priestly elite, also created a vast number of changes in the political, religious, and social landscape. Certainly, it, and the discovery of the New World, are responsible for a great deal of the changes in European society that we know as the Renaissance – the revival of classical arts and sciences, the new interest in learning and the natural world. Gutenberg’s press also made possible the Protestant Reformation – because, as Martin Luther came to realize, the wide translation and printing of the Bible meant “every man be a priest.”