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Review of Eugene Provenzo, Jr.’s Beyond the Gutenberg Galaxy

February 16, 2013

Eugene F. Provenzo, Jr., Beyond the Gutenberg Galaxy: Microcomputers and the Emergence of Post-Typographic Culture (New York: Teachers College Press, 1986).

The world is changing! The sky is falling! Yes, these are well worn cliches; but considering the pace of technological change, it can be useful to explore these sentiments to get a sense of how far we’ve come and what we thought before we got there. Also, this is one of the central tasks of history, so it should not be a surprise that ruminations of this sort are occurring here!

In any case, I was exposed to Provenzo’s Beyond the Gutenberg Galaxy as an MA student at Boston College when I was working on the historiography of Early Modern Europe. One of the themes we explored was the rise of print culture, and The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, by Elizabeth L. Eisenstein loomed large. In that text, Eisenstein references the work of Marshall McLuhan (Gutenberg Galaxy) and Provenzo to advance her argument: This collection of works carry a similar message of the transformative nature of print. Eisenstein maintains that the problem inherent to the field and the questions raised by McLuhan revolve around the loss of historical perspective due to the fact that the pre-print world must now be viewed primarily though the lens of the printed word. It is now clear that our own digital age that there is an upheaval in perspective when communication technology and supplants another.

This is where Provenzo comes in. Essentially, his argument is similar to what McLuhan contends: that the internet age shares a precedent with the rise of the printing press. Indeed, Provenzo spells this thesis in his introduction: “This argument is similar to McLuhan’s…that modern global culture is in the process of undergoing an electronically based communications revolution whose only precedent was the typograpic revolution of the fifteenth century…[based on] the possibilities provided by the emergence and widespread availability of the new computer and microcomputer technology” (3). In 1986, it was difficult to conceive of the issues that have been raised by the prior discussion of digital history here and elsewhere; the proliferation of digital collections and archiving, social media, and the challenge of copyright and sustainable models of maintaining the value of information. Yet Provenzo’s prophetic ruminations have merit; we are facing a paradigm shift.

Provenzo’s work has the most value as a primary source as a marker for where we’ve been in the near-past in dealing with the emergence of digital media. It is a brief text, covering eight chapters in about ninety pages, with few footnotes. Most of the references are secondary material. Provenzo references the work of George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, and Daniel Bell. He predictably evokes the Luddites as a word of caution about the implications of a digital future. All in all, though, Provenzo is fairly positive on new media and the dawn of new forms of communication.

Really, it is his analogy between the invention of the printing press and his perspective on the cusp of the internet that is most intriguing. That said, there is not a lot here on what exactly those things mean. He does not spend much time defining his terms or going deeply into the history of either digital media (as it was in the late 1980s) or the printing press. Like McLuhan, this is more polemical than historical. That said, Provenzo’s work is now a road sign in our rear view mirror telling us where we have been and where we are headed.

One Comment
  1. I like you assessment that this work may be more valuable as a primary source rather than offering a vision for where we can take all this. I have the distinct feeling too that this genre in the field of digital humanities is going to fall by the wayside before the usual 30 year cycle as a chance to mature.

    Work on incorporating more audio/visual content into your posts. Push the boundaries of the possible with this medium.

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