Technology and Sovereignty

Wriston, Walter B.




About 85 percent of all the scientists who have ever lived are alive today. With their advanced tools and increased creative opportunities, it is not surprising that the rate of change is now more rapid than at any time in human history. "The entire Industrial Revolution," says Dr. Carver Mead of the California Institute of Technology, "enhanced productivity by a factor of about a hundred," but "the microelectronic revolution has already enhanced productivity in information-based technology by a factor of more than a million--and the end isn't in sight yet." The immense consequences of this technological revolution have not always been grasped by policymakers.

Politicians and diplomats are by nature attracted to those political historians who record the rise and fall of nation-states, but they generally display little interest in the history of science. This lack of interest compounds the difficulty of understanding what is happening. Indeed, many renowned history books barely mention the impact of science on the course of political events. Even in ancient Greece, as Plato records, engineers were not held in high regard by philosophers: "You despise him and his art," he wrote, "and sneeringly call him an engine-maker, and you will not allow your daughter to marry his son or marry your son to his daughter." Very little has changed, even though scientific achievements are altering the shape of national and international events in fundamental ways.

A good example is the launching of by the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957. At the time, world reaction was divided. Dr. Edward Teller opined that the United States "had lost a battle more important and greater than Pearl Harbor." President Eisenhower, however, took a more sanguine view:

So far as the satellite itself is concerned, that does not raise my apprehensions, not one iota. I see nothing at this moment ... that is significant in that development so far as security is concerned, except... it does definitely prove the possession by the Russian scientists of a very powerful thrust in their rocketry.

The chancellor of West Germany, Konrad Adenauer, related the event to European geography: "Five hundred and sixty miles is only the distance from Bonn to Vienna. It does not prove they can fire anything parallel to the earth over a distance of many thousand miles."

In the blinding clarity of hindsight, Dr. Teller was probably closer to the mark in some ways than the politicians. Despite the initial reactions to launch, what should no longer be in dispute is that satellite technology changed the world forever. Even today the full consequences are not yet known. On the other hand, the fallout from the event did galvanize America to mount a program that would put a man on the moon.

The convergence of computers with telecommunications has created an information revolution. One observer, the journalist Mike O'Neil, has said that this revolution is "hurrying the collapse of old orders, accelerating the velocity of social and political change, creating informed and politically active publics, and inciting conflict by publicizing the differences between people and nations."

The impact of information technology, moreover, has a profound effect on the rate of advance of all science, since calculations that used to take years can now be made in minutes. Scientific knowledge is currently doubling about every 13 to 15 years. The old industrial age is being slowly replaced by a new era of the information society. This transition does not mean that manufacturing does not matter, or that it will disappear, any more than the advent of the industrial age meant that agriculture disappeared. What it does imply is that, like agriculture today, manufacturing will produce more goods for more people with less labor. It also means that the relative importance of intellectual capital invested in software and systems will increase in relation to the capital invested in physical plants and equipment. Traditional accounting systems designed for an earlier age no longer reflect what is really happening, either in business or national economics.

  • This document was created from the article, "Technology and Sovereignty" by Walter B. Wriston for the Winter 1988/1989 edition of "Foreign Affairs." The original article is located in MS134.003.027.00008.
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