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Democratic Power and the Printing Press

Someone, who I am certain was probably pretty important, once said “Knowledge is power.” Before the fifteenth century however the distribution of knowledge was inhibited by the process of oral and scribal transmission. Enter the printing press which allowed reproduction of information for easier access and a broader reach. Hence we see the ‘democratization of knowledge’ which brought on a revolution in power; knowledge is power.

Naturally any time a society is on the brink of a revolution anxiety in and among the empowered rise. In the case of the democratization of knowledge and therefore power through the printing press we see no difference. Under the belief that an informed public would be inclined to form dissenting opinions and display a defiance of authority those in power feared the revolution of the printing press and the social changes that it would motivate. In reaction to this new invention, the ruling class exerted prior restraint in publishing as a means to try to exert political and religious control. Likewise, the American colonies feared disruption of the colonies through the dissemination of knowledge through printed word. Even the church succumbed to this fear trying to keep the bible to its elite scholarly class fearing that it’s religious constituents might come of the own opinion through private interpretation of the Bible.

A free an unrestricted press would allow for greater freedom of thought and expression for the people, but this became a dangerous proposition as the English government moved to strike those uncensored for ‘seditious libel’-Henry was out to establish his power above that of the church. Other efforts in the movement to control printing the Privy Council made arrests for sedition or criticism of the government. Queen Mary established a Stationers Company allowing only a few select members who by means of membership were allowed to print. Her mission was to stop the growth of Protestantism. Queen Elizabeth employed licensing and prior restraint but allowed the growth of the printing press mainly for use of music, literature and the Bible; all after approval from her highness or designated authority, of course.

Perhaps most controversial was that of printing the news. While historical, religious and romantic tales posed a threat through the instigated diversity of public opinion it was nothing when compared to that to the distribution of news accounts. Very specifically those in positions of power were trying to restrain John Milton’s sentiments from resonating throughout the people, “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.” There was one last effort in licensing to restrain the loss of control felt through the revolution, but just as women came to have more power through the economic benefits they provided to society through greater freedoms, so the economic force of those invested in the printing press overcame the inclination to censor. Knowledge is power, but the almighty dollar rules.

Meanwhile in America the same battles were at play, and those who tried to exert greatest freedom of opinion were often arrested for their dissenting opinions of seditious libel (as in the case of John Peter Zenger). Newspapers and the distribution of news became an economic enterprise coupled with book trade.

While information has reach new levels of democracy, restraints are still in place as global corporation monopolize the media empire. However, we see the fear of the ruling class play out enabling the informed public greater freedom of opinion, diversity of belief, and power in influencing its government and economy.

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