Revolutionary Technology in 1517

When considering the effect of the Internet on democracy, it is sometimes useful to look for historical analogies, instances in which a new technology had dramatic political impact. Sometimes these analogous situations can shed light on our current situation.

In his 2006 article, “Changing Media, Changing Politics,” University of California professor Samuel Popkin talks about the importance of distribution in stimulating intellectual and political change. He is not referring to the Internet though, but rather to the printing press.

Martin Luther
posted his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg in 1517. In our history classes we are taught that this was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, but there is a key factor that we aren’t taught: distribution. It was not the ideas of the 95 Theses that made them revolutionary. According to Popkin, “priests had been nailing theses to church doors for centuries, listing their complaints with church doctrine or practice.” What made Luther’s theses so influential was not that they were nailed to the door but they were printed.

Gutenburg invented his moveable type press in 1436 and by 1500 there were 250 presses spread throughout Europe. Luther’s Theses arrived just at the right time. Between 1517 and 1520, 300,000 people bought pamphlet copies of the 95 Theses. Then Luther translated the Latin Bible into German, and that was printed too. Now people who had a reason to doubt religious doctrine because of their familiarity with the 95 Theses were able to read the Bible and see for themselves.

The Reformation led to the Enlightenment which produced the ideas of consitutional democracy that we live by today. It was the combination of revolutionary thought and revolutionary technology that causes the Protestestant Reformation and the revolutions that followed to occur.

What great ideas will be catapulted to worldwide recognition due to the massive communicative power of the Internet? The changes will almost certainly be greater than the changes wrought by the printing press. If 250 presses were able to change relgious doctrine in Europe, what will be the impact of the tens of millions of computers online around the world?

Unlike the printing press, which was a uni-directional means of spreading information, the Internet is multi-directional. Each Internet-connected computer has the distributive power of a printing press which can publish an unlimited amount of copies at almost no cost. In today’s world eveyone, either with a blog or personal web site can be a Martin Luther, able to disseminate ideas to a global audience.

The Internet has not yet caused the political transformation that the printing press wrought, but the Internet is young yet. The full effect of the printing press was not felt until 80 years after its invention. The printing press facilitated the Protestant Revolution which led to the Enlightenment and our current ideas of democracy. What transformations can we expect from the Internet?

(This is cross-posted at )

Be Sociable, Share!
Posted in Ideas. Comments Off on Revolutionary Technology in 1517

Comments are closed.