Although we like to credit Gutenberg with the printing press, the concept of movable type actually originated here, in China.

During the Ch’ing-li period (1041-1048), an alchemist named Pi Sheng conceived of the notion of movable carved blocks for printing Chinese characters instead of painstakingly hand writing each one.

Of course, in Europe, the advent of movable type set off an intellectual revolution that we are still feeling the consequence of. In China, the very same technology had no such impact.

Although the Chinese were first with this new and radically powerful technology, they were also caught in a cul-de-sac of their own culture.

The Western alphabet is only 26 characters, so once transcribed to movable type blocks, it became a remarkably simple and fluid mechanism for the transmission of ideas. The Chinese alphabet, however, has more than 60,000 characters. The notion of manipulating 60,000 bits of block is simply overwhelming. Even in its most limited form, (I am told that you can communicate pretty well in Chinese with a knowledge of 3,000 – 5,000 characters), it is simply untenable. Imagine a typewriter with even 3,000 keys, let along 60,000.

Although the seeds of the intellectual revolution were first planted in China a good 500 yeas before Gutenberg, they failed to take root. They failed to take root because an even older cultural environment, deeply ingrained in Chinese culture, their alphabet, proved to be sterile soil for the revolution that movable type wrought in Europe.

It takes more than just the arrival of a new technology. It takes the right cultural conditions.

The arrival of the Internet (and the associated ‘video revolution’), I think is analogous to the arrival of movable type and the printing press. That is, it has the potential to change the very nature of society, if, (and this is a big if), the cultural soil is prepared for it.

Do we have an inherent flaw in our culture, similar to the Chinese alphabet that may prevent the web from making the impact it might?

It is early, but I begin to fear that our constant need to be entertained may do for us what 60,000 characters did for the Chineses – stop the thing cold.

We have created for ourselves a world in which everything must be entertaining – short, funny, gross, whatever. Read Neil Postman’s AMUSING OURSELVES TO DEATH (, as he explains this far better than I. But just go to Youtube and see what we have done with the remarkable power of this new medium. Not much.

The ‘rules’ we make for video, as we start to air ‘User Generated Content’ are: funny, punchy, or people eating scorpions.

We have no interest and no patience for information, content, quality. The same goes for TV shows we try and pitch. It’s always the same: people who eat gross things, the woman who weighs a thousand pounds, extreme sports, extreme anything. Content free.

The technology may be incredibly powerful.

But we may have within our genes the inability to exploit it.


3 responses to “THE CUL-DE-SAC OF CULTURE

  1. I think you’ve touched upon why the craft of photo documentary projects back in the days of Life Magazine faded away – people don’t want to deal with reality – they want to escape from it – and in a sense – it dumbs down the craft of creating meaningful content – and is replaced with the pablum that society today considers oh so important.

    Look at the presidential candidates – the top three Democratic candidates don’t really have much experience – yet the second tier candidates in the Democratic race bring over 100 years of combined experience to the table – yet the fickle citizens of this country are more concerned with the star power of the top three instead of the substance of the second tier candidates – so typical any more.

    So it seems analogous that meaningful video content is relegated to those who truly want to send a message with substance – while the rest of the Youtube generation seem to be quite honestly just a bunch of numb minded viewers.

    Cliff Etzel – Solo Video Journalist

  2. I think your fear is justified inasmuch as the American culture has been de-sensitized to content which is meaningful rather than just briefly entertaining.

    At the beginning of now five years in the Middle East I felt that what’s wrong with film and video here is that it doesn’t conform to Western entertainment values; much of it is meditative, self-referential, poetic even.

    Guess what, it could be that the meaningful content makers of note will spring up in parts of the world where we might not expect them. Aisia, Africa anybody?

  3. Close, but not quite, Michael. The missing link among ideographic and syllabary languages is the lack of a phonetic alphabet (especially with phonetic vowels). The phonetic alphabet created the environmental (or cultural, as you might describe it) basis for the disruption that Johannes Gutenberg enabled (the heretic!). For a more in-depth treatment of the history, you could see Why Johnny and Janey Can’t Read, and Why Mr. and Ms. Smith Can’t Teach.

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