Small Revolutions Expand Epic Innovations

Gutenberg’s printing press is widely (and rightfully!) celebrated as an innovation of epic scale. It fundamentally changed society as it existed up until that point. Printed materials became easy to produce, heralding a new age of information and idea dissemination.

Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations has a related invention that is not as commonly known:

In 1501 Aldus Manutius, a Venetian printer, published a translation of Virgil’s works…What was new about Manutius’ Virgil was its dimensions. The so-called octavo size was designed to be small enough to fit in a gentlman’s saddlebags so as to make important parts of his library transportable.

Of course, Aldus Manutius‘ octavo was not an innovation of the same size or proportion as Gutenberg’s printing press.

This was a small revolution, literally and figuratively—small in the sense that the book had shrunk in size and cost, and small in that it was less significant than Gutenberg’s original innovation.

However, it was a small revolution that did have an impact, on both the society and on the original innovation.

Yet the octavo size mattered, because it helped spread the written word. By making books cheaper and more portable, Manutius made them more desirable, which in turn meant more copies were produced and more experiments with printing were undertaken.

This made me wonder – is it that huge innovations need smaller, related revolutions for it to advance, expand, and succeed? In this case, the answer is yes. But if we dig deeper into any world changing innovation, I am sure the answer would be the same.

Shirky compares this revolution made possible by someone who accepted the larger social change (printing press) against those who fought against the tide and draws a valuable lesson (more like a warning really).

The lesson from Manutius’s life is that the future belongs to those who take the present for granted.

Now, can someone please pass this message on to MPAA and RIAA as they continue to push for SOPA and their own irrelevance? (See Infographic: Effects of the Internet Blacklist Bill (SOPA) and SOPA: Hollywood Finally Gets A Chance to Break the Internet)

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