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Excerpt from

Chapter Thirteen



When history books note the importance of the printing press, they often emphasize its role as a purveyor of pure, clear knowledge. By stressing the enlightening aspects of the press, they are buying into the view of human progress that prevailed in the eighteenth century (known, not coincidentally, as an enlightenment-era view). In this view, the source of history’s directionality is intellectual advance— scientific, technical, political, moral. Over time, people build better machines, better governments, better societies, better moral codes; they rationally discern the good and rationally achieve it. Condorcet, the iconic enlightenment-era progressivist, envisioned a time when elitism and prejudice would dissolve in a sea of virtue and wisdom. (Now that would be progress.)

Obviously, intellectual, even moral, progress does happen—and the printing press did its share to further them. But, as we’ve seen, infor­mation technologies are instruments not just of enlightenment but of power. In ancient times, writing had bestowed power; when literacy spread, power spread beyond a tiny elite. With the printing press, and its proliferation, came another episode in the decentralization of power. And, though this power sometimes rested on enlightenment, there was no necessary connection between the two.

One way to see this distinction is to look at the press’s role in the Protestant Reformation. There are two basic stories about how the printing press fostered the Reformation. The first is that it brought Bibles within reach of laypeople, allowing them to get their religious instruction from the source and thus form their own opinions about church doctrine, with no coaching from the pope. This story is especially popular among Protestants, and there is some truth to it.

But the more generally important story is the one hidden in the word "Protestant." The printing press lubricated protest. It did so by lowering the cost of reaching and mobilizing a large audience. Before the invention of printing, publishing en masse had been hard unless you could afford the upkeep on, say, a few dozen monasteries full of scribes. (For a student in Lombardy during the fifteenth century, justbefore the coming of movable type, the price of a law book was more than a year’s living costs.) Now, with printing cheap, an eloquent agitator with a catchy idea could occupy center stage.

Martin Luther, a theologian of modest prominence, affixed his critique of Catholic doctrine to the door of Wittenberg’s All Saints Church on October 31, 1517, and within weeks three separate editions were rolling off the presses in three cities. A sixteenth-century writer observed: "It almost appeared as if the angels themselves had been their messengers and brought them before the eyes of all the people."


An information technology constitutes, among other things, a nervous system for social organisms—organizations of clergy, say, or organizations of heretics. The better the nervous system, the more agile the organism. For centuries before Luther, as one scholar has observed, the church hierarchy had "easily won every war against heresy in western Europe because it always had better internal lines of communication than its challengers." The press changed that, chipping away at the pope’s spiritual authority.

By the same logic, the press chipped away at secular authority. In fact, the two forms of rebellion sometimes fused. In 1524, German peasants revolted, demanding an end to serfdom. Some rebel leaders had been inspired by Luther’s teachings, including Lutheran pamphlets that held up the earnest, hardworking peasant as symbol for the simple purity of ideal Christian life. The peasants also emulated Luther’s use of the press, publishing a list of twelve grievances.

As it happened, their hero let them down, siding with the ruling class. To argue against serfdom, Luther wrote, was "dead against the Gospel." After all, "Did not Abraham and other patriarchs and prophets have slaves?"

Still, try as Luther might to confine his radicalism to theology, the cleavages within Christendom that the Reformation revealed would time and again turn out to coincide with political fault lines. The "wars of religion" that racked Europe in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries were also wars of politics. In the Netherlands, Calvinists fought to loosen the yoke of their distant and oppressive Catholic ruler Philip II, the Hapsburg king of Spain. In various German states, Protestants struggled for states’ rights against the Holy Roman Emperor. By the mid-seventeenth century, the Netherlands was free from Hapsburg control, and the Holy Roman Empire was effectively dead. A primary cause was the centrifugal force of the printing press. The press mobilized religious dissent and political dissent, and often the two worked in synergy.

Still, to call the press a wholly fragmenting, decentralizing force would be to oversimplify. Instruments of efficient communication are tools for mobilizing groups that have something in common—a political aspiration, a religious belief, a language, whatever. If the commonality implies opposition to a central authority, as it did for Luther’s followers, the result can be fragmentation, or at least a diffusion of power. But if the group’s common bond stretches across existing boundaries, bridging prior chasms, the effect can be to glue fragments together, to aggregate power.

A good example is that mixed blessing of the modern age, the shared national sentiment that—especially in its more intense, self-conscious forms—is known as nationalism. This sinewy sentiment, if used deftly by a politician, can erode the power of local rulers, expanding authority. The result—a centrally governed and culturally coherent region bound by a sense of shared heritage, shared interest, and shared destiny—is the nation-state. We take nation-states for granted today, but they didn’t always exist. To understand the printing press’s role in their evolution, we need to first understand the forces that were encouraging this evolution well before the press arrived on the European scene.

The press reinforced the drive toward national rule in two ways. First, it unified the cultural base of large swaths of land, standardizing custom and mythology and, above all, language. In the late Middle Ages, the scholar Adam Watson has written, “one dialect shaded almost imperceptibly into the next, the Romance languages from the Low Countries to Portugal and Sicily and the Germanic from Holland to Vienna.” The press changed that, tamping down dialectical differences, creating large blocks of mutual intelligibility—“unified fields of exchange and communication,” as the political scientist Benedict Anderson has called them.

Second, the press began to foster a kind of day-to-day national con­sciousness. By the early 1500s, single-topic “news pamphlets” were harmonizing English sentiment, reporting on battles, disasters, celebrations. In the ensuing centuries, as journals and true newspapers evolved, the printing press would give more and more fiber to national feeling. Whole states would become, in Anderson’s terminology, “imagined communities.”

The symbiotic development of printing and nationhood differed from place to place. For the French and the English, it was in the con­text of an already distinct and growing national organization that the press made its mark. Among central European peoples—the Italians, the Germans—national rule wouldn’t arrive until the nineteenth century—so the press, and strong national sentiment, didn’t just consoli­date the nation-state, but paved the way for it.

Even here, within central Europe, different nations followed some­what different paths. The German states, their leaders reluctant to surrender local sovereignty, were united by Bismarck via war and intimidation. Italian unification, while not wholly peaceful, was closer to a voluntary conglomeration. But whatever the route, the printing press figured crucially—via newspapers (which had proliferated wildly during the eighteenth century); polemical journals (such as Joseph Mazzini’s Young Italy); popular books (Grimm’s Fairy Tales created a national German folklore); and weighty tomes (especially German ones romanticizing the idea of a unique national character, a Volks­geist—an idea that found receptive audiences elsewhere in Europe.

In no nation did the printing press cause national governance. Amid economic recovery and expansion, the logical scope of governance was growing with or without the press. But the press strengthened the logic and gave nationhood a particular cast—a coherence, a basis in shared language, culture, and feeling. And this nearly tangible unity, in turn, made nations naturally formidable units, resistant to conquest. In a sense, the printing press was less important in carrying centralized governance up to the national level than in stopping it there—keeping it from rising higher, to the level of empire.

We’ve already noted one early example of this dynamic, when the Calvinists of the Netherlands—the “United Provinces”—successfully resisted Hapsburg dominance in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. This would hardly be the last example, either for the Hapsburgs or for other aspiring imperialists. In the early 1800s, in the wake of the French Revolution, Napoleon tried to use the now-firm French nationalism as a base for empire-building. It worked for a while, but ultimately he foundered on, among other things, national­ist resistance in places such as Spain and the German states.

In addition to the technological obstacle to European imperialism posed by the press, there were (as sometimes happens in history!) his­torical factors. During the Hapsburgs’ bid for greatness, the nearby Ottomans, fearing a rival empire, aided recalcitrant states. For that matter, even if we confine our gaze to the realm of technology the press was not the only thing that bolstered nation-states. The burgeon­ing roads of the late Middle Ages were conduits, however informal, for news and other data. They would become better ones as national postal services evolved during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Still, even taking account of these and the many other factors that helped invigorate the nation-state, the printing press stands alone. More than any other single thing, it accounts for the basic, oft-noted irony of the modern age in western Europe: political power migrated both upward and downward. Previously, European governance and cultural identity had tended to be local, a vestige of feudalism—and when lines of allegiance or authority did go further in scope, as with the pope or the Holy Roman Emperor, they were often at the other end of the spectrum, spanning the continent. But with the modern age, tiny polities became less and less economical, and vast monoliths became less and less tenable. The nation-state, with a cultural and political integrity crystallized by the press, emerged at the expense of both.


This simultaneous upward and downward migration of power is sometimes called a “paradox,” but on close inspection, it isn’t truly contradictory. Whether dividing or uniting, the printing press was often elevating coherence.

The empires it helped break up were in some sense arbitrary empires—ungainly expanses encompassing sharply different cultures and languages. Meanwhile, when the press helped fuse small polities, the borders it erased were in many cases artificial and dysfunctional—impediments to economic efficiency. These impediments were especially costly when affinities of culture and language would otherwise have allowed smooth concourse by keeping the two barriers to non-­zero-sumness—the trust barrier and the communication barrier— quite low. Witness the economic potential unleashed in Germany after Bismarck united it.

These two effects of nation-state formation—breaking up the arbi­trarily united and merging the dysfunctionally divided—sometimes happened in one fell swoop. The Italian states of Lombardy and Vene­tia, incongruously part of the Austrian empire for much of the i800s, broke off and fused with their closer relatives as part of Italy’s emer­gence in the second half of the century.

The process of nation-state formation has taken awhile to play itself out. Only toward the end of the twentieth century does the idea of the vast multinational empire seem finally to be giving up the ghost around the world. But note how, even back in the nineteenth century, empires increasingly confined their exploitation to areas far from the influence of the press. Western European nations managed colonial empires consisting of pre-industrial and mostly illiterate peoples on various continents. The Russian and Ottoman empires, too, subju­gated the illiterate. And as the Ottoman Empire began its long nine­teenth-century disintegration, those lands that managed to carve out autonomy or outright independence were often places with the most exposure to the print revolution, such as Greece and Serbia. (A single Serb, Vuk Karadzic, developed the Serb alphabet, published a Serbian grammar book, translated the New Testament, and compiled Popular Songs and Epics of the Serbs, paving the way for a Serbian nationalism that, for better or worse, would prove durable.)


An excerpt from Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, By Robert Wright, published by Pantheon Books. Copyright 2000 by Robert Wright. Other excerpts available at