The Industry

Highlights From the Gutenberg Hearings

An empire’s potentates size up the risks of new technology.

Photo illustration: "Johannes Gutenberg" speaks before the "Holy Roman Empire."
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Alex Brandon-Pool/Getty Images and Wikipedia/Public Domain.

If you read a criticism of Facebook, try subbing in the word “printing press” and see if it still makes sense. —Tyler Cowen

Father of modern printing Johannes Gutenberg appeared before the seven Prince-electors of the Holy Roman Empire Tuesday to discuss data privacy and disinformation disseminated using his invention. Below are excerpts from the hearing.

Gutenberg: We believe that we need to offer a Bible that everyone can afford, and we’re committed to doing that.

Duke of Saxony: Well, if so, how do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?

Gutenberg: Prince-elector, we print indulgences.

Archbishop of Trier: You’ve talked about the benefits of reading. But you also know that reading is not without its risks and that you have to be very transparent about the infallibility of church teaching, the authority of the pope, when people are using reading. How, when you make Bibles with your printo-pret—press, how do you ensure that users do not disagree with the pope?

Gutenberg: Prince-elector, I think the core issue you’re asking about, doctrinal unity, is a really important one that people are just starting to very seriously study, and that’s ramping up a lot. And I don’t think that in 10 or 20 years, we want to end up in a world where some people agree with the pope and other people disagree with the pope.

Trier: So—

[Crosstalk.]

Gutenberg: I think that—that these systems—certainly—if a pope—it’s an extremely—it’s a topic of great relevance.

Archbishop of Cologne: Let’s say I’m communicating with my friends using a printing press and indicate that I love a certain kind of chocolate. And all of a sudden I start seeing, all along the edges of my Bible, little decorations about chocolate: Jesus eating chocolate, apostles wrestling a bar of chocolate, a big letter A covered in flowers made out of chocolate. What if I don’t want to receive those illuminations?

Gutenberg: We’re considering letting users pay a small fee not to see the chocolate.

Trier: If I—Heaven forbid, but if I, hypothetically, disagreed with the pope [crosses himself], would I be able to use your printer pants to communicate to an audience of, say, idiots, that I was this pope-disagreer?

Gutenberg: Prince-elector, I can’t speak for others, but I can assure you that I personally have never had the urge to publish anything incompatible with popes.

Trier: But consider if someone in another country—like Saxony, for example—if a man—a large, 400-pound man in Saxony—he hacked your pringus to put out papers with, written on the documents, the pope’s worst mistake and then he asked the devil to convince everybody, using these fake propagandas, to convince them against the pope?

Gutenberg: Prince—

Trier: And then we get the gosh-darned Thirty Years’ War.

[Gutenberg blinks.]

Trier: What is your company doing to prevent this outcome?

Gutenberg: Prince-elector, I’m happy to have my team follow up with you.

Archbishop of Mainz: Welcome Mr. Gutenberg. Do you know who is Palatine?

Gutenberg: I do.

Mainz: Some people refer to him as the craven Count Palatine of the Rhine Frederick I who, in return for the towns of Lorsch and Heppenheim and Blesheim, joined with Diether of Isenburg—the failed archbishop who obtained a Bull of confirmation as Elector at Mainz only after paying Pope Pius II some 20,000 guilders—to defy Pius, demanding outrageous “reforms.” I then invaded Mainz, killing 400 of Diether’s supporters and exiling 400 others, including you, Johannes Gutenberg, in 1462.

[Gutenberg blinks.]

Mainz: Do you agree?

Gutenberg: Prince-elector, I have not heard that.

Mainz: OK. Do you think the Palatine taught Diether, as press reports are saying, how to do these things?

Gutenberg: Prince-elector, I do not know.

Mainz: Do you think that the Palatine has ever used movable type?

Gutenberg: Prince-elector, I’m not aware of that.

[Mainz brandishes a copy of the open letter to Pius II that Diether published on the eve of his ouster, one of the earliest-known incunabula.]

Musgrave of Brandenburg: You don’t think you have a monopoly?

Gutenberg: In 1455 I was ordered to surrender literally all of my printing equipment to my business partner Johann Fust, who was suing me, and start from scratch. I predict that within three decades of my death there will be more than a thousand independent printers operating in Europe.

Brandenburg: OK.

[Laughter.]

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Andrew Kahn is Slate’s assistant interactives editor.