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September 23, 2008

Pre-Pinta printing, and PostScript

Today I stood six inches from a book, which was printed just before Columbus was born. I couldn't tear myself away.

They used a woodblock to print it -- carve the words into a block of wood once, then roll ink and press paper onto it many times. One publishing operation, many many books.

For some reason this moved me deeply, more than the hand-copied book nearby which was twice its age, or the carved stone tablet which was twice the age of that.

This was at the National Museum in Taiwan, home of the greatest collection of China's antiquities -- thousands of valuables of tribute to emperors from vassal states, aggregated dynasty through dynasty, first catalogued when China became a Republic in 1911, then massively transported to safety during the invasion of World War II, safe from the Cultural Revolution on the mainland in the 1960s.

A book which was printed before Columbus was born. I came back, and back to the display to look at it again. Why did it move me so?

It took me awhile to figure out, that it's much like the work we're doing today. Today it's faster, and there's not as much ink or wood chips to clean up, but that early woodblock work is in the same vein as Aldus PageMaker or NCSA Mosaic. We're helping ideas to live.

Representational art and painting predated writing, and conveyed a feeling which others could appreciate. The written word carried ideas, though. I don't know what we humans are intended to do on this planet, but I have the strong intuition that it has to do with ideas. Plants were alive, and fostered animals, which became more complex until primates started dealing with ideas stretching beyond themselves. The spread of ideas -- memetic diversity -- seems to be the path we're on at this stage.

The writing-in-stone from the time before Christ... a dramatic evolutionary step, but one which took massive effort to create. The production of such artifacts was limited to the few and mighty, and as for its audience, well, few other people had much to practice reading with.

The writing of books by hand lowered production costs, and also increased portability during consumption. But it still took one skilled artisan a very long time to copy a book out with ink on paper. And who could afford to learn to read?

But, using carved wood to print many copies -- now that was a true advance. Each page's woodblock was still expensive to carve, but once you had a page of text, the marginal cost of extra copies dropped sharply. We finally started to enter the period when many people could find it worthwhile to learn to read, when it started to become practical for ideas to spread among more brains than just the privileged few.

I believe in the work that Adobe is doing, and I've devoted a good part of my life to advancing this mission. PostScript and desktop publishing slashed the cost to produce the written word, and the World Wide Web has similarly slashed the distribution costs for abstract ideas. What once required a potentate and host of artisans to record in stone is now achievable by anyone. Ideas can live.

And five hundred years ago, the idea to carve a book into wood and make many copies... that small step led directly to today.

I didn't expect to be so emotionally moved by standing next to a book, printed before Columbus was born. But I was.

... and the guy who sewed its pages together by hand, I bet he'd be moved by seeing how far a nice Ricoh collater has taken his work today.... ;-)

Posted by JohnDowdell at September 23, 2008 5:04 AM