I have been referencing the kindle single “Gutenberg the Geek” by Jeff Jarvis on and off since my official arrival at Shimer College as the new president. So, I thought I would write just a bit about why I have been doing so. Of course, it is not because I am trying to raise Jarvis’s royalties, though I am thrilled to learn he is a pal of a Shimerian (or so rumor has it). I read it before I arrived to start working as President of Shimer College – and truly like it. Plus, I think it pushes us to ask new questions.
What is “Gutenberg the Geek” about? Well, it describes Gutenberg’s inventiveness in several ways. The essay reveals the many ways that his inventiveness was not a single individual’s but in some major sense social. And, it draws an analogy between that inventiveness and the inventiveness we now associate with the word “technology.” Gutenberg, Jarvis indicates, was the Steve Jobs of his era. Thus, the technology of book creation associated with Gutenberg is rendered similar to that of creating computers and their attendant innovations within today’s culture. In fact, Jarvis argues that Gutenberg’s challenges can be understood as parallel to those of a Silicon valley start up.
Why do those of us in liberal education care? Why might we especially care at places like Shimer?
As Shimerians, we may care because Gutenberg was, in Jarvis’s language, a great disruptor. He was an entrepreneur. While some critiques of the essay (and it is truly a short one) argue that there is not much there, what is there is the reminder that analogy is rooted in similarity and dissimilarity. Therein lies one of our major routes to intriguing questions. For Shimer, these questions include:
- What is a book? Is it a technology of information storage and cultural memory? Is it an artifact of an entrepreneurial culture? Is it a static entity or is it one of many technologies that allow us to encounter enduring questions and both enduring and new answers?
Perhaps the following queries are the same questions, but they feel and sound different?
- Is reading a book the same as reading a screen?
- Is the social revolution of accessibility associated with Gutenberg’s work (remember, the idea of vernacular access to books was revolutionary for many, for example, as was the free exchange of ideas through a capitalist form of book production) similar to or different from today’s social revolution of accessibility of ideas and information?
And, for us, another question: If Gutenberg was a Geek, if books must be understood within the context, among others, that Jarvis offers, what then is a Great Books College? For that matter, what is college? what is education?