16 September, 2011

Gutenberg: death of an unreasonable man

Melbourne Herald Sun, Friday September 16, 2011

One of the most important men in modern history died last week and nobody seemed to notice. There were no stop-press headlines around the world, no chance of a burial at Arlington Cemetery, only a whisper around the web and a few newspaper obituaries.

Yet Michael S. Hart has changed the world, education and business forever. He also changed your life and the way you look at, and use, knowledge.

Forty years ago he created Project Gutenberg and in the process invented the ebook. If you don’t know what Project Gutenberg is, you should, so keep reading.

Hart invented it on July 4, 1971, after returning from the fireworks with a hand-out copy of the US Declaration of Independence. He was working with computers at the University of Illinois and typed the document as a computer file which his friends could access and share, on an early academic version of the internet.

Then he had his insane idea. Let’s put every book ever written, in whatever language, onto one huge world database. In honour of the genius who transformed the world through the invention of movable type, he named his project after Johannes Gutenberg.

For more than two decades he did most of the work himself, starting with the likes of the US Bill of Rights, the King James Bible and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Painstakingly copying 20 books a year, by 1987 he had 313 books on the database.

Then help finally came. Through the magic of the rapidly expanding internet, thousands of contributors volunteered. Scanners changed the task from typing word by word, to editing the OCR files.

Today there are more than 36,000 books in 60 languages. They are in the public domain and available free to anyone anywhere. So a Uigur in western China can read the 2010 CIA World Factbook; Austen, Dickens and Joyce are all available, and the current favourite - no surprise - is The Kama Sutra.

There would be a lot more, but the publishing industry has lobbied hard to extend copyright. In 2006, under the US-Australia Free Trade Agreement, coverage was increased from 50 years to 70 years.

Hart disagreed: "One thing about ebooks that most people haven't thought much, is that ebooks are the very first thing that we're all able to have as much as we want other than air.”

His ideas sparked the revolution that is happening continuously, right round us. Think how much you rely on the web for your daily work and information. The collapse of our biggest bookstores, the screws that internet marketing is putting on retailers.

Hart’s concept led to other great inventions. How many times do you use Wikipedia in a week? Jimmy Wales created it only ten years ago but already it has 13 million unique visitors every day. Its breadth and coverage dwarfs the Encyclopaedia Britannica. It has 19 million articles in 270 languages. How many bookshelves would that take?

How we value knowledge has also changed. Gutenberg doesn’t charge for the downloads. If it did, Hart would have become a multi-millionaire like the Gates, Jobs and Dells of the computer revolution. Instead he lived frugally, fixing his own house and car and building computers from second-hand parts.

For 40 years he stayed focussed on his mission: the spread of literature, learning, knowledge to everyone who cared to reach out and pluck it.

He was fond of quoting George Bernard Shaw: "Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable people attempt to adapt the world to themselves. All progress, therefore, depends on unreasonable people."

Michael S. Hart died as unreasonable as ever, and the world needs more like him.



Howard Belcher said...

Thanks Ray,
Very interesting.

Robert Gibson said...

Thanks for the reminder.

Bill Shannon said...

Hi Ray,
A nice piece on an unreasonable bloke.
Ta, Bill.