Monday, April 20, 2009

Aldo Manuzio

AldineThese are times similar to Venice in 1500, when Aldo Manuzio (alias Aldus Manutius, 1452-1516) joined a printing business and became a publisher. The adoption of Gutenberg's printing press, the brain drain of scientists from the collapsing Byzantine Empire bringing with them the Greek classics, an educated population that could read Greek, and a flourishing spice business whose profits allowed ordinary people to afford books; all of these contributed to a vibrant, innovative environment.

The price of Manuzio's books was about a teacher's day's salary. Before, books could be afforded only by princes and wealthy monasteries. Compare this with the price/performance development of computers and software.

Manutius formulated a key idea that made him a main contributor to the Renaissance: he became a publisher instead of a printer. He searched for material and selected what he thought might have the largest readership. When he came across a classic text he thought might appeal to a wide audience, he had it translated from the Greek and published in Latin, and when he thought he might have a best-seller, he would even publish it in Italian, the common people's language.

The lesson from Manutius is that although one can become rich by working hard operating a printing press, one can become wealthier by working smart and exploiting new emerging technologies (embracing and extending).

The press was owned by an established printer, Andrea Torresano. Manuzio managed the printing shop, selected the texts to be published, made editorial decisions, and arranged for the marketing of the books

Technology is just an enabler; paradigm shifts have more to do with social values. In Manuzio's time, one major problem was the sheer size of books. He came up with some technological solutions, like inventing the italic type style that can be easily read at a smaller size, and folding the paper form (folio) into 16 sheets to reduce the dimensions and make books portable. But with these techniques the books of the time where still too voluminous.

Manutius could have used a technical solution, like publishing each work in several volumes. Instead, he called upon a value judgement. In his time, the largest part of a book was taken by the annotations, which could be several times the number of words in the original text. It was believed that the value of a manuscript depended on the annotations, and on the number and quality of the commentators. Manutius decided that his readers would read the classics for their own intrinsic beauty and the comments would be of interest only to the scholarly. He published only the original text.

Publishing a book stripped of the annotations was not an obvious decision in Manuzio's time, and this is exactly the kind of disruption that a successful technology for the Web must enable. In 1500 Venice, general education and wealth had reached a critical mass; Manutius recognized the potential of the new market and came up with the critical ideas and technologies to redirect books from an erudite audience to the general public.

The Web media industry is evolving to the Internet the technologies initiated by Manutius and the methodology introduced by the press in the 1850s; this media industry is not inventing a disruptive technology — opportunity is knocking.