No increase in the ability of mankind to communicate has ever resulted in a loss of liberty. Every single invention has resulted in real gains in both personal and national freedom.
The ability to transmit large amounts of information from one generation to the next is a hallmark of our species. The first innovation was biological... around 200,000 years ago it appears humanity first gained the ability to speak.
The pressures and requirements of agriculture lead to the next innovation, a comparatively recent 6,000 years ago. At first developed solely as a means of bookkeeping, and making damned sure the recipe for beer was never lost (proving men haven't changed that much in 10,000 years), writing turned out to have almost mystical powers. Suddenly the dead could speak, and their ideas could last forever.
The biggest problem with writing was it was such a pain to create copies of things. Each one took nearly as much effort as the first, and the only way to make sure the copies were correct was to be very, very, very careful. This made scrolls and (later, after about 500 AD) books really expensive, and only what the society (i.e. the government) considered important ever got written down.
Libraries were a necessity because only governments and the extremely rich could afford a large number of books. In fact, many times a library was the only place a book existed. Think about that one for a second. Imagine holding the only existing copy of, say, Shakespeare's collected works, knowing the information in your hands existed nowhere else in the whole world.
When the main library at Alexandria burned after being inadvertently set on fire by Caesar's forces in 48 B.C.1, every single copy of thousands of books were destroyed2. The loss was incalculable, and today we can only wonder what those books might have contained.
Writing helped humanity without a doubt, but by itself it was too fragile. Entire cultures, the built up knowledge of centuries, could be completely erased simply by setting fire to a few buildings.
It took nearly the rest of history, 5500 years, for the next real innovation in communication to take place, but when it did it changed the world. Gutenberg's combination of ink, movable type, wine press, and paper technologies into the printing press is rightly considered one of the most important inventions mankind has ever made.
Instead of ten people making one copy of one book per year, those ten people could now make five copies of five books in a day3. And things only got more efficient from there. The cost of books dropped by a factor of ten almost overnight, and kept falling. Suddenly anyone could buy a book, and because they were so cheap suddenly everyone had a reason to learn to read.
The effects of this single invention on human liberty were profound. The first institution to feel its effects was the great Roman Catholic Church, which had held a stranglehold on European thought for fifteen centuries. The church had been abusing its power in the most egregious ways possible for more than three hundred years by the time Gutenberg nailed his machine together. It took one German cleric with one sheet of paper to light a match to that fuse.
The difference with Martin Luther's movement wasn't about how charismatic, forceful, or bull-headed Luther was (although those things certainly helped). What happened to make it different was even before his 95 "theses", proposals for church reform, were torn off that church door there were ten thousand copies scattered all over Europe. The forces of the Church literally couldn't burn them fast enough.
More than anything else, the printing press unchained information from its cloistered benches, scattering it on the wind like so many dandelion seeds. A pile of books as high as a man could be turned into a bonfire on the whim of a bishop or a king just because he didn't like what it said, but it wouldn't matter. A thousand copies of each book had already been printed and hidden under the baseboards of countless peasants' hovels, in the attics of thousands of merchants' houses, and behind the stones of a hundred castles. Given just a single month another thousand would be printed from just one workshop, and there were thousands of workshops.
Everything we know and are in this modern world, every single thing, flows in an unbroken river of paper back to Gutenberg and the dozens of other printers like him in the medieval towns of Europe in the 16th century. It took nearly 6,000 years to reach this milestone, but the next innovation, the first one made after the printing press (the telegraph), would only take 300, and the next after that, wireless, just 50 more.
And just 77 years later, the space of a single human lifetime, we would be walking on the moon.
So the next time you're standing in line at a Kinkos, or waiting for the laser printer to warm up, stop for a moment and wonder at it all. Realize you're not looking at a machine, you're not looking at information, you're not even looking at squiggles on paper.
You're looking at liberty.