The Printing Press vs The Web: The Effects

The author Steven Pemberton, CWI, Amsterdam


History of Me

New Technologies

An image of an early car

Whenever a new technology is introduced, it imitates the old. Early cars looked like "horseless carriages" because that is exactly what they were.

It took a long time for cars to evolve into what we now know.


Scriptorum Before the introduction of printing in 1450, all books were literally made by hand (Manu script: hand written). This was a long slow process, and very expensive.

Until the introduction of printing, books were rare, and very, very expensive, maybe something like the same price as a small farm.

Only very rich people, and rich institutions, owned books.

In 1424 The University of Cambridge had one of the largest libraries in Europe: 122 books.


The main producers of books were the monasteries.

"When the Anglo-Saxon Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Abbey planned to create three copies of the bible in 692—of which one survives—the first step necessary was to plan to breed the cattle to supply the 1,600 calves to give the skin for the vellum required."

They had to

Book 1450

Printing in 1568

Gutenberg combined known technologies: ink, paper, wine presses, and added movable type.

Early books

The first page of Gutenberg's bible

For the first 50 years, books looked just like manuscripts.


That was what was expected of a book at the time.

It was where the money was.

They didn't know any different!


When Gutenberg introduced the printing press around 1450, it had several effects:













Image source. Data source.

Information explosion

Before, producing a single copy of a book took several years. By 1500:

And bear in mind, you didn't just "set up a print shop". You had to:

It was a real revolution.

The real book

After about 50 years, readable fonts were introduced, and the features we now expect from a book, so that books became what we now think of as books.

I'll talk more about this later.

Another Effect: Social Turmoil

Up until the introduction of printing, all information had been in the hands of the church (even universities were primarily religious institutions run by the church).

After books arrived, the church and state instituted censorship, to try and control information. Writers were killed or imprisoned for saying things that weren't approved of. (E.g. Galileo for saying that the Earth moved)

Consequently many thinkers relocated to get out of the reach of the church.

"The twin occurrences -- that the city became a hub for scientists, and that it became the centre of publishing -- fed one another, resulting in the astounding fact that, over the course of the 17th century, approximately one-third of all books published in the entire world were produced in Amsterdam" - Russell Shorto

Printing enabled the rise of Protestantism, and the Enlightenment is ascribed to the availability of books.

Information increase

Scientific journals1665: first two scientific journals French Journal des Sçavans and the British Philosophical Transactions

From then on the number of scientific journals doubled every 15 years, right into the 20th century.

Even as late as the 1970's if you had said "there has to come a new way of distributing information to support this growth", they would have thought you crazy, more likely expecting the growth to end.

(Source: Little Science, Big Science, Derek J. De Solla Price)

The Web

The coming of the internet in Europe in 1988 enabled the Web.

Tim Berners-Lee (and Robert Caillau) created the Web at CERN. First server 1991.

They brought together existing technologies (Hypertext, the internet, MIME types) and created a cohesive whole.

The Web is now replacing books and many other things.

Telephone directories, yellow pages, encyclopaedias, train timetables, other reference works are already gone. Others will follow.

Books (as an artefact) will become a niche market. All information will be internet-based.


In many ways, the development of the web has echoed that of the book:


Books created turmoil in society by creating new ways for information to be distributed, which disturbed the existing power structures.

We are now living through a similar information turmoil, since society has not yet worked out how to deal with these new sources of information.


Amsix stats 2023 peaking at nearly 12TB/s

And weirdly, just as Amsterdam produced the largest number of books in the 17th century, it has the fastest internet switch in the world, currently peaking at nearly 12Tb/s.


The web is still imitating the old.

It is still very much presentation oriented, and not information oriented.

For instance, I recently had to:

The web imitating the old

For instance ticketing, contracts, receipts.

These are all typically PDFs, with no machine processable elements. The only thing that has happened is that the paper has been digitised away, and is sent to you electronically. Otherwise it is the same as it ever was.

For instance tripit, which assembles tickets, hotel bookings, and the like and creates an itinary for you automatically has to parse the text in these things, and try to work out what it is saying. It often gets it wrong.

In the future web, everything will be machine readable, so that you can actually do something with it!

Since it is machine-readable, the machines can then make it human-readable when that is required. CSS is very good at that.

This conference imitating the old

Providing papers for this conference is a choice between latex (which is a pre-web technology) or Word!

There's a page limit!

There's a styleguide on how references should be visually displayed!


I write all my papers in (a rational version of) XHTML, supposing it to be the current format that has the best chance of longevity. Using HTML doesn't commit me to any particular presentation (that's the glory of CSS).

But I have to convert my HTML to Word in order to submit.

Which they then convert to HTML and PDF!

I recommend The Tyranny of Formatting (from 2013!) for further details.

When will we get the real web?

So eventually books went from pretending to be manuscripts to being proper books.

When can we expect the Web to stop pretending to be the old things, and start being what it really ought to be?

Why did it take 50 years for books to become their real selves?
This question has long troubled me.

My reluctant conclusion: the old generation of users and producers have to die, before the new generation who had never known the old way could start asking why things were done in such a weird way and start fixing them.


The web is still in its pretend-manuscript phase.

The real web can't emerge until the paper generation is dead.