Labeling and comprehension

When someone is able to simplify a concept to the point that it’s easy to comprehend, recall, and apply in ways that are mostly beneficial, then the simplified model can itself become a powerful influence. Beneficial, of course, is a relative term. Usually, the powerful benefit, so everything is always more complex than it seems.

The Gutenberg Parenthesis is one of those simple concepts. As Megan Garber explains on the Nieman Journalism Lab website, the Gutenberg Parenthesis is:

…the idea that the post-Gutenberg era—the period from, roughly, the 15th century to the 20th, an age defined by textuality—was essentially an interruption in the broader arc of human communication. And that we are now, via the discursive architecture of the Web, slowly returning to a state in which orality—conversation, gossip, the ephemeral—defines our media culture.

The Gutenberg Parenthesis is a concept examined by Associate Professor Thomas Pettitt of the Institute of Literature, Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Southern Denmark (Syddansk Universitet), who, in a lecture hosted by the MIT Communications Forum, asked:

How is the Internet changing the way you create? Changing the way you write? How is it changing the way you produce words?

And the Gutenberg Parenthesis’ answer would be: it’s making me create a bit more like Shakespeare. Which brings us back to the historical dimension.

We are evidently in the middle of a revolution in communications, which is manifestly impacting on cultural production and prompting these questions about its impact on cognition. It started in the 20th century with sound and film recording, multiplied by radio and television, and now supplemented and enhanced by the Internet and digital technology. And there’s a common theme in commentary that these developments constitute not just something new but the end of something old—that they are a challenge to the dominance of print and the book and reading.

Pettitt credits Lars Ora Sauerberg, his colleague at the University of Southern Denmark, with devising the label Gutenberg Parenthesis to describe the temporary interruption in the history of communication during the era that is now closing.

By understanding the Gutenberg revolution, Pettitt says, we can better comprehend the Google revolution, a period of transition to a “secondary orality” that is more like the past. Included among the ways our current cultural phase resembles the past, he notes, is the increased ease and likelihood of intervening and modifying digital texts in the process of copying them.

Pettitt expresses appreciation for John Miles Foley’s research at the University of Missouri’s Center for Studies in Oral Tradition. Some of Foley’s ideas regarding the significant similarities of oral traditions and digital texts in the post-Gutenberg era can be found at Navigating Pathways: Oral Tradition and the Internet.

My thanks go to Barbara Miller, a book sales representative at Allan Vayle Enterprises, who pointed the members of the Digital Book World group on LinkedIn to the Nieman Journalism Lab video of Pettitt discussing the Gutenberg Parenthesis.

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