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Gutenberg’s printing press was the Facebook of its day

Print pioneer Johannes Gutenberg and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Getty Images

We can learn a lot about Mark Zuckerberg by looking at another high-tech disrupter: Johannes Gutenberg, says David Von Drehle in The Washington Post. Like many “tech bros”, the 15th-century German was “born comfortable but felt drawn to a rising class of hungry entrepreneurs”. He first tried to sell mirrored broaches to religious pilgrims, who hoped absorb emanations from sacred relics. That start-up failed, but it taught Gutenberg about precise metal casting. Using “open-source technology from the wine industry”, he then invented the printing press. “The original social medium was born.”

Facebook is deservedly under attack for sowing division and spreading disinformation. But the same could be said for movable type. Gutenberg’s press gave far more people access to the Bible and helped to ignite the Reformation, but millions died in its century-long aftermath. People get “roasted” on social media, but Thomas Cranmer was burnt at the stake in 1556. What Mark Twain said of the printing press could be said of Facebook: “It found truth astir on earth and gave it wings; but untruth also was abroad, and it was supplied with a double pair of wings.” Unlike Zuckerberg, Gutenberg couldn’t cash in on his invention. But there is another, important difference: the American billionaire still has time to alter his invention for the better.