Conversational Leadership: is this our Gutenberg moment?


A seminar on knowledge management and social media, discussing whether we are now experiencing a second 'Gutenberg moment' similar to that which followed the invention of the printing press. Are we on the brink of a knowledge revolution?

A NetIKX seminar, 29 September 2022

Gutenberg moveable type, taken by Richard Rutter (CC BY 2.0)

For the September 2022 seminar, NetIKX was pleased to welcome back David Gurteen for another of his popular Knowledge Cafés, this time on the topic of ‘the Gutenberg moment’. The invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg is now seen as having instigated a chain of events which transformed the world – the Enlightenment, the Protestant Reformation and the Thirty Years’ War – but is the digital era, in particular the rise of social media, another such defining moment in history?

Marina Gorbis, in a 2017 article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, makes a compelling case that we are living through a second ‘Gutenberg revolution’, arguing that “like the invention of the printing press, the rise of digital communication tools will likely lead to multiple revolutions”. This is the question David invited us to address in the seminar, starting with a presentation on how we have arrived at our current situation.

The (pre)history of knowledge management

Knowledge management is often assumed to be a recent phenomenon: however, David argues that it began 60,000 years ago during the ‘Cognitive Revolution’, also known as ‘the cultural Big Bang’. At this time, three new human abilities emerged: the ability to communicate through language; the ability to build social bonds through gossip, and the ability to discuss abstract concepts such as love, beauty or God. Anatomical evolution ceased, and humanity began to evolve culturally: we started to learn from each other and to pass down knowledge from one generation to the next.

The development of knowledge management can be traced further through the invention of writing, the first recorded library (in 700 BCE) and, most significant for our discussion, the ‘Information Revolution’. Beginning in 1945 with the development of the earliest computers, through the invention of the internet, the desktop PC, the World Wide Web, social media, and smartphones, this shift in the way we produce, consume and share information has radically changed our everyday lives. 

Social media – or anti-social media?

Has the age of social media heralded a second Gutenberg moment? Just as the printing press once did, the internet has increased both access to information and the speed at which this can be transmitted. David suggested that, just as the printing press led to a revolution which undermined the authority of the Catholic Church, social media may likewise be contributing to a polarisation of society and an undermining of the authority of ‘experts’. We have seen the negative expressions of this trend in the growth of conspiracy theories and ‘alternative facts’ – yet social media has also been a driver of positive social change and raised public awareness of neglected issues.

In the traditional small group format of the Knowledge Café, we discussed whether this is indeed our ‘Gutenberg moment’, where each of us can share our knowledge and can converse and collaborate globally. Many participants felt that social media has become increasingly toxic and that the major platforms are unable, or unwilling, to combat bullying and abusive conduct. This led on to the question of whether we can have a genuine conversation (as opposed to a point-scoring ‘debate’ or a popularity contest) on social media. David made the point that virtual meeting apps, such as Zoom, more closely replicate face-to-face conversation and, if properly moderated, are more conducive to respectful discussion. 

From cognitive revolution to knowledge revolution

Just as our ancestors 60,000 years ago were not aware they were part of a revolutionary phase of human history, we cannot predict what the long-term consequences of our new form of social transmission will be. Opinion as to whether we are experiencing a second ‘Gutenberg moment’ was divided, but we all agreed that we are living through extraordinary times and that social media has an important role to play both in our personal lives and on a wider scale.

For more information about David’s work on knowledge management and conversational leadership, you can follow him on Twitter or LinkedIn, or subscribe to his Knowledge Letter. You’ll find plenty of resources, as well as news of upcoming Knowledge Cafés and other events. 

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