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death of the printed word

The Life and Deaths of the Printed Word

What do current technological advances and "free information" via the Internet hold for the future?

The cost of producing the printed word has dropped dramatically four special times in human history. It turns out that each time these gritty, seemingly unimportant and usually invisible events happened, strange and surprising things began to unfold in the ensuing decades. Governments wobbled. Commerce turned upside down. Even the way we thought changed.

Now, hidden amid the bright and more famous changes in the way we communicate, it has happened again. Again, we may to be in for a rough ride.

That's the premise of an entertaining new book, Paradigms Lost: The Life and Deaths of the Printed Word by William J. Sonn.

More than simply a history, Sonn's book traces the accidents, inventions, and forces, as well as the eccentric personalities and geniuses who accelerated information transformation and caused the world to literally change. The book traces the seismic societal shifts which followed each dramatic drop in the cost of written knowledge, back to the beginning of civilization. Though it doesn't claim to know "What's next?" Paradigms Lost provides some background for what, if the past is any guide, may be coming.

death of printing With each change in the recording or publishing of thoughts or ideas, a simultaneous world change has followed. As the printed word became accessible to more and more people, the structure of western civilization tilted on its axis and evolved into a new society teeming with shifts in politics, wealth, religions and even the way we learn, think and see. Now, for perhaps the first time ever, an author has "put it all together" in an entertaining examination of the history of the printed word.

With each change in the production of content, expensive and secret bodies of knowledge abruptly became cheaper and accessible. Once-rare and sometimes disorienting impressions rained down on surprised and bewildered people. New and otherwise inexpert hands mixed them into whole new breeds of information, myth, logic, and viewpoints. There were fantastic scientific advances, mass migrations, bold social experiments, financial upheavals, and bloodshed.

The fifth radical change in the printed word is upon us now: the Internet and beyond. We can print almost anything ourselves, without professional help, and distribute it around the world with the click of a mouse button. The World Wide Web is the ultimate library; information, opinions and everything in between are available to more people than ever before.

In light of what has happened before when radical changes in print communication came upon the world, can the past help us see into the uncertain future?

"The book is largely about what happened to us as a society," Sonn explains, "each time the unglamorous production of glamorous media got cheaper. Everything in the world mirrored those changes."

"It's no coincidence that many things in our lives in the 21st century have become more transitory and temporary," adds Sonn. "Ideas, evidence, everything can change meaning in a blink. Now, literally anyone can produce and publish what they consider art, literature or 'truth.'"

"But while many lament the impersonal, 'cyber' aspects of the new information age, I also think we neglect to see the positives -- the empowering access to free thought the Internet provides."

cover "What really matters -- as history has repeatedly shown -- is how we use it and to what changes we allow it to lead."

Information and the way we produce and present it, Sonn speculates, may help us determine where we go from here.

Paradigms Lost : The Life and Deaths of the Printed Word
by William Sonn
Paperback: 398 pages Publisher: Scarecrow Press, Inc.

William Sonn is a writer and marketer and a graduate of Michigan State University. He did graduate work in history at the University of Denver before beginning his career in journalism (which included work for a wide variety of newspapers and magazines, including Outside, Chicago and The Progressive) and business. He currently heads Business Development Communications, marketing firm, and aside from pursuing history projects like Paradigms Lost, writes for corporate and industry clients. He resides in Denver with his wife.

Until next time... keep on reading!

Fred Showker
      Fred Showker, Editor/Publisher


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