Technological vs. Cultural Determinism and the Printing Press


This case study discusses the theories of Technological Determinism and Cultural Determinism as they apply to Gutenberg’s Printing Press.  We discuss the historical environment in which the printing press was introduced and how some theorist summarize the innovation was driven by technological breakthroughs as opposed to the theory of Cultural Determinism, where culture shapes technology.  We assert that Cultural Determinism is more likely the correct theory to explain the innovation of the printing press as it takes into account the environment in which the innovation was introduced.  The printing press did not bring on change, it simply facilitated it.


In 1455, Johannes Gutenberg’s moving type press printed a copy of The Bible and our world was forever changed.  Before this revolutionary invention, books had to be copied by hand a painstaking process that made books few in number and costly. The Gutenberg’s press could produce 3600 pages per day, which made books more affordable and hence more accessible. By the year 1500, printing presses had produced over 20 million volumes and produced a staggering 200 million by the year 1600. ( To put things in perspective, it has been estimated that there were only “30,000 books in all of Europe before Gutenberg printed his Bible; less than 50 years later, there were as many as 10 to 12 million books.” ( Accessible literature meant a more literate public. A more literate public meant an enlightened public but perhaps not in the way the Church or Gutenberg envisioned.

The press was created in the midst of the Renaissance and as such contributed to the explosion of art and knowledge. The press was used to create religious publications for the Church but it was also used to reproduce various Greek and Roman texts which helped fuel the interest in the Classical world that drove much of the philosophy behind the Renaissance, specifically Humanism. While many texts were printed, at least initially, in Latin, local texts soon became available. As a result, spellings became more standardized and languages strengthened.  A more literate society with a more streamlined mode of communication meant that more people were able to communicate and express themselves.  The ability to generate written text quickly and affordable also allowed for the preservation of history. Culture’s live on through the written word. Scholars and artists communicate from beyond the grave. Books make eternal communication possible.

The printed word also makes the more immediate exchange of ideas possible. The printing press and the increased access to literature it created is said to have influenced major cultural shifts in addition to the Renaissance, namely the Scientific Revolution and the Reformation.  Scientists were able to read the research/work of other scientist and borrow from and build upon their ideas. Martin Luther insisted that bibles be available in one’s native language and once people were able to actually read The Bible for themselves, they questioned the Churches authority.  Because books were no longer a luxury afforded only to the very wealthy, the lower classes started to question the status quo. The impact of the printing continued to manifest centuries after its inception.


Technological Determinism and the Printing Press

Historian Charles A. Beard said, “Technology marches in seven-league boots from one ruthless, revolutionary conquest to another, tearing down old factories and industries, flinging up new processes with terrifying rapidity.”  (Kovarik, 7) Technological determinism is the “idea that technology drives the changes that take place within Mass Communication content.” When one considers the seemingly immediate impact Gutenberg’s bible had on the world, we might be apt to support this notion of the technological conqueror. It would seem that the printing press itself brought about the social and cultural changes that followed but upon further examination, we see that the revolution did not happen overnight. There were many outside forces ushered in the winds of change.  Occurring within the Renaissance, Scientific Revolution and Reformation periods, the printing press wasn’t created to drive this change, it enabled the kind of change that would stretch to the West.

It should first be noted that Gutenberg was not the first to try his hand at such a contraption. Like with all great inventions, and some not so great, the inventor stood upon the shoulders of those who came before him…or her. But as the “Great Man” theory points out, history usually credits a “him” even if it really was a “her.” Before Gutenberg’s press, books could be and often were printed with a woodblock, a method called xylography, which has its roots in China.  Conduct a quick search on the history of the printing press and the first listing you’ll see if from stating, “The printing press was invented in the Holy Roman Empire by the German Johannes Gutenberg around 1440, based on existing screw presses.”  Ancient Romans created the screw press and though it was used mainly for making olive oil, the technology was there.  A journey through time on Spaceship Earth at Walt Disney world, Dame Judy Dench exclaims that the Gutenberg’s press created the Renaissance. While the connection between the printing press and the Renaissance cannot be denied, Gutenberg printed his bible around 1455 and the “official” start of the Renaissance is widely considered to have begun during the Middle Ages, in the 14th Century.   

The Law of the Suppression of Radical Potential

As discussed in the prior section, there were a great many forces surrounding the birth, development, and support of the Gutenberg’s press. The Catholic Church almost immediately recognized the potential widespread literacy had to derail their teachings. While not able to suppress the actual technology that made literacy in reach for a large segment of the population, the Church suppressed the product of that technology through attempts at censorship.  The Church was well acquainted with censorship but the sheer number of texts being generated made widespread censorship a challenge. They did manage to require that the Bible be printed in Latin, until Martin Luther came along with his belief that all should be able to read The Bible in their native tongue.   


Technology does not exist in a bubble. What it becomes depends on how we interact with it, how we manipulate it. The printing press did not reveal certain truths about the church nor shape the reformation. The printing press merely made already existing information more accessible. The printing press did not magically cause an explosion of literacy but it did make reading materials easier for the average person to acquire. The printing press allowed for quick and affordable manufacturing of literature and it revolutionized the Western world because the world was already on the verge of a revolution. Timing is everything. Most would consider this a marvelous legacy but there are always those who stand to lose something when people realize that they can think for themselves.  The unintended consequence of technology was enlightenment.



Works Cited

Kovarik, Bill. Revolutions in Communication: Media History from Gutenberg to the Digital Age. New York: Continuum, 2011. Print.


Lee, L. “Printing Press and Its “Impact” on Literacy.” ETEC540 Text Technologies. WordPress, 30 Oct. 2010. Web. 25 Sept. 2016.


Staff. “The Renaissance-Why It Changed the World.” Telegraph Media Group Ltd., 6 Oct. 2015. Web. 24 Sept. 2016.


Staff. “Gutenberg’s Legacy.” Harry Ransom Center RSS. The University of Texas at Austin, n.d. Web. 25 Sept. 2016.


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