I Garbugli della Rete - 2
July 1996

English translation

Gutenberg, Manuzio and Sex

disponibile anche in Italiano


There is a newsmagazine in Italy called l’Espresso, that takes itself very seriously, and deals with very serious issues (that is, if one can call politics or economics serious). When they don’t have a good cover story (it seems to happen rather often) they put a scantily dressed woman on the cover.

One day they had a Big Idea. Let’s put together sex and that newfangled fashionable thing, the internet.

So there’s an undressed girl on the cover and a five page article by Sandra Cecchi, who explains that the dominant theme in the internet is sex.

There are several other examples of this sort of thing,
but one is enough to explain what is happening.

I must admit that I am not much of a voyeur (I rather prefer the tactile version of sex) and I have better things to do than sit there like an idiot in front of a monitor waiting for a picture of some undressed female to download. So I must trust Ms. Cecchi’s judgment, though I don’t know how she conducted her research.

She says there are 600 “erotic” sites on the web. That is very surprising. 600 out of 300,000 is an incredibly small number. If she is right, this is the least erotic environment in human history.

She also says that most of them are “members only”. You must pay to see the pictures. That, too, is surprising. Unless one lives in Saudi Arabia, why should one pay for the creepingly slow download of pictures that are easily found in any newsstand?

Even more confusing... what are the censors worrying about? How many children have a uncontrolled bank account?

I enjoyed much more a column, written by Umberto Eco in the same magazine (but obviously not read by its editors) where he told the story of his search for “sex” in the net. He found several boring newsgroups on sexology, very little sexy stuff of any interest, and promptly fell into the trap of a militant sexophobe who said «what are you doing here, pig?»

Now someone may ask: “how do Gutenberg and Manuzio fit into all this?”

We are getting there. :-)

In another of those columns, Umberto Eco was commenting on the poor use of icons in software. With the invention of print, the world slowly went from illiteracy to reading. The net is essentially verbal. Now why do they try to turn us back to illiteracy?

Icons as far more difficult to understand than words. There is no code, no syntax. You see a heart, you think it’s for love, and then you painfully discover that in one software it stands for mail, in another for things you are fond of and want to save.

Fancy, he says, being in an airport. It’s convenient to have little pictures on toilets, so you know where they are even if you don’t understand the local language. But what if they had icons for destinations? You may figure out that a reclining tower means Pisa – but if they used a river for Fiumicino you may wind up in Mississippi while you were heading for Rome.

I would be happy if someone put on a cd-rom a really good encyclopedia (or several encyclopedias together, or a wide database on whatever I am researching, maybe sex). It would save me money, but especially lots of space. I could cross-research as much as I wish without breaking my back pulling down dozens of enormous books from a shelf.

Instead... we get “encyclopedias” with lots of (mostly useless) graphics and not enough text.

It may be fun, if I am searching Zambia, to hear the national anthem and see a few pictures of landscapes and local art. But not if this cuts the text by thousands of words, so the information that I am looking for is not there. When we shall have 10-gigabyte cd-roms, there will be room for both. But as we stand now I would prefer more information and less paraphernalia.

So here we get to Gutenberg and Manuzio.

The Gutenberg era is over. Manuzio is not.

Johann Gutenberg was a technical engineer. He developed a process for typesetting that has remained in use until a few decades ago. Now, with photosetting and electronics, it is obsolete.

Aldo Manuzio (or, if you wish, Aldus Manutius) wasn’t a printer. He was a humanist. He invented publishing. He also invented critical editing. And he designed the first typeface, which is the grandparent of most of the typefaces we use today.

His invention is well alive today, and shows no sign of aging. Paper printing may evolve, but it is most unlikely that it will disappear. Electronic communication is based essentially on the written word.

It may be fun to add picture and sound here or there (if bandwidth can handle it). There have always been books with pictures – also newspapers and magazines. But “picture” magazines were the ones that died. This isn’t television. Writing is the basic tool.

A newbie on the web may be intrigued, for a while, with pictures (sexy or not). But (also because of slow downloads) that person will soon get tired. People will not stay on the net unless they find something they want to read – or write.


Giancarlo Livraghi
  January 1998

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