In the 16th Century the Catholic Church faced arguably the greatest threat of its long history, not from armies or kings, but from the spread of ideas and information. The printing press was at this time becoming a common feature in cities and towns across Europe, and printers and writers were generally considered to be radicals and rebels intent on disturbing the status quo. A threat to stability. A threat to traditional notions of power.
The church and state made various attempts to wrestle control of this new communications technology – printers had to apply for licences to operate their machines, while at the same time the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Index of Prohibited Books) swelled in Italy, France and the Netherlands, banning the works of scientists, astronomers, theologians; anyone with ideas and evidence that might challenge traditional thought.
Of course, you know the rest. Efforts to restrict the flow of information might have slowed things down, but it couldn’t stop the tide. Lutherism and Calvinism charged on regardless, leading to the reformation and the birth of the Protestant church. Copernican theories of astronomy, such as Galileo’s findings that the Sun did not move around the Earth, eventually became considered scientific fact. Like many leaders after them, the Catholic Church found restrictions on ideas almost impossible to enforce, at least over the long term.
At this point, you might be wondering why I’ve started this post with a history 101 (one relating to religion at that). Well here it is. When I read this weekend’s article in the Scientific American about how the Egyptian government had systematically turned off the ISPs disabling the bulk of their country’s internet access, while millions of Egyptians continue to take to the streets demanding that their voices be heard, this story from my Year 9 history class suddenly came back to me. And I think this is why.
It seems to me that popular revolutions the world over have been slowed down by the efforts of the authorities to control and restrict the spread of information and means of communication. Slowed down. But not stopped. You cannot stop information, ideas and freedom of expression. Whether it takes days, weeks, months or even years, it seems that sharing ideas, developing our knowledge, gathering together, having our voices heard; these things are more than simply strange quirks of history but intrinsic aspects of human nature.
We have an intrinsic need to learn. To develop our thinking. To improve our understanding. To express our ideas. And ultimately, to try to influence the world around us in a way that reflects these deeply held values. Freedom of opinion and expression, to receive and impart ideas and information are not arbitrarily enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights because they’re ‘nice to have’. They’re human rights because they are an intrinsic part of who we are, and to stifle them is to stifle our humanity.
So, while I was pleased to hear Barack Obama state in his remarks on Friday night that the Egyptian government must reinstate internet and mobile phone access on the basis that these are human rights which “do so much to connect people in the 21st Century”, I do not believe this revolution is going to be stopped by the restrictions on internet access any more than the Reformation was held back by restrictions on the printing press. Online technologies will help the Egyptians get their story out and make their voices heard, I grant you, but without these technologies, the people finding other ways to make their point, to share their ideas and experiences, to demand a better future. Whether that means getting around the restrictions by using dial-up modems or ignoring new technologies altogether and camping in their hundreds of thousands in Tahrir Square until their government finally listens to them, the people are finding a way. Yes, it might take a little longer. But history tells us you can’t stop the tide.