Information is like a living organism; it expands to fill the container in which it is kept. Put some life form (it does not matter which) in some environment, and it will instinctively probe the outer limits of its habitat. Knowledge is like this, too. It can be suppressed for some time, but in the end, it cannot be held back forever. It always disseminates in one way or another. No matter how effective propaganda, official lies, and ideological correctness may seem, they can never hold back the tide of truth for an indefinite duration.
Consider the invention of printing. Before movable type made its appearance in Europe in the fifteenth century, books were costly and time-consuming to produce. They had to be created laboriously by scribes, copyists, and illustrators. Papyrus from Egypt had not been seen in Europe since the fall of Rome; parchment or vellum were the only alternatives, and these were expensive. There was no such thing as a “reading public” in the modern sense; education was in the hands of the clergy. Writers who wanted to get their message out needed either to enter the Church or receive patronage from a generous noble. But gradually conditions in Europe began to favor the invention of printing. The end of the Crusades, the rediscovery of classical learning, the new wealth that poured into national economies from the nascent Age of Discovery: all these things helped kindle this printing “information revolution.” Information and knowledge were in demand. And as always, inventions would arrive to meet this demand.
Paper, that key ingredient in printing, had come to the Middle East from China in the early medieval period, and had been carried into Europe with the Islamic incursions. We find paper in Andalusia in the tenth century and in Sicily in the twelfth; from there it percolated through the rest of the continent. The development of movable type in Europe seems to have been a German innovation. There have been some claims of early forms of movable type coming out of Holland in the early fifteenth century, but these have not been adequately substantiated. We cannot talk about European printing without giving Gutenberg his due.
Born about 1400, he worked in the primitive printing industry in Strasbourg and Mainz. After setting up his own printing business in 1456, he issued those famous Bibles that have become synonymous with the printing revolution. There were other printers in Mainz besides Gutenberg, and when the city experienced hard times in the 1460s, they emigrated to other German cities, taking their art with them. So was the new trade proliferated through the land. The revolutionary implications of the new art were clear. Books could now be produced faster, cheaper, and more accurately than ever before. Demand skyrocketed, and new ideas–many of them considered subversive–could no longer be smothered in infancy. Without doubt, the coming Reformation was carried on the shoulders of the printing press. It would have happened without printing, but it was printing that increased its momentum and impact.
Another example is found in a form of dissident activity in the old Soviet Union called samizdat. People who wanted to read forbidden literature would write their own manuscripts (either by typing them or copying them by hand) and pass them along from person to person. It was a highly dangerous activity, of course; but such was the hunger for knowledge and information that dissidents were willing to run the risk. For the modern Westerner, who may take copying for granted, it is difficult to understand the extent of the control of information at that time. Typewriters, copiers, and mimeograph machines were registered and monitored. Yet people found a way to get the information out. Good material could not be suppressed.
It is not often appreciated now, but the fall of the old Soviet Union might not have happened as fast as it did. When Yuri Andropov replaced Brezhnev in the early 1980s, there was a crackdown on “subversive ideas.” Andropov was a hard-liner, but he appears to have understood the need for reform of the old Soviet model. He and his policies are now little-known in the West, but had he lived, Russian history might have been very different. His experiences as ambassador to Hungary in the 1950s and as a bystander to the Czechoslovak revolt in 1968 convinced him that repression was the only way to keep the Soviet system afloat. We cannot be too sure he was wrong.
I have always suspected that Andropov (so little remembered today!) might have been, had he lived long enough, a major transitional figure in history. Perhaps if he had lasted longer than 15 months in office, the Soviet Union might have reformed itself gradually, like China did in the 1980s and 1990s. Perhaps instead of a chaotic collapse and economic disintegration, there might have been in the Soviet sphere a slow, gradual reform that preserved the whole. But these are speculations; as it happened, none of Andropov’s designs came to fruition, and when he died, his successors were unable to carry out the reforms he apparently intended.
Information always finds a way of spreading. Any system that depends for its survival on coercion, intimidation, or threats–whether real or implied–can only smother dissent for so long. At some point, people will begin to look around, take stock in their situation, and draw their own conclusions. This applies not just to political systems, but to all forms of mandated ideological orthodoxy.
Learn more about the spread of information in my new translation of Sallust’s classic works: