The Information Society: From Gutenberg to S.W.I.F.T.

Wriston, Walter B.


However the world's information is assembled and reproduced, the effort to transmit it on a timely basis from one place to another is older than history. And the technique does not change in a predictable manner.

Technologies have ranged from the signal fires that carried the news of the fall of Troy to the beat of African drums that carried the news to sub-Sahara Africa of the Battle of Tobruk in World War II. The halting efforts of mankind to design and maintain some standard way to communicate data have been far slower than the generation of the data itself. Probably one of the first breakthroughs was at sea where the fate of vessels and their passengers often depended upon swift, accurate signals. The international code of signals was compiled by the British government in 1857, and about half-a-century later in 1901 was amended to its present form by an international agreement. Even today, however, the dots and dashes of the morse code are not standard worldwide. The international morse code differs from the American on eleven letters and almost all numerals.

Against that background, our progress in S.W.I.F.T. does not seem too unsatisfactory. We might remind ourselves that in some parts of the world, the gauge of railway tracks still changes when one comes to a political border. Some say that this was a deliberate effort to halt invading armies, but perhaps in some cases the reason for a failure to agree on something so simple as the width of a railroad track came after the fact and should be called a rationalization. We have one gauge of track across the American continent today because the railway tycoons of the past felt the practical necessity to move goods across this nation. Today, no doubt, their acts of standardization would violate antitrust laws and we would have instead a government commission holding hearings to determine the "proper" gauge of railroad track.

S.W.I.F.T. was born of a similar practical necessity, but in an age of far more stringent regulations.

As the flow of information became more and more important to all of us in the financial business, it became clear we needed some kind of a standard format for financial transfers. While our progress has been slow, today S.W.I.F.T. has moved a long way toward its goals.

  • The document was created from the speech, "The Information Society: From Gutenberg to S.W.I.F.T.," written by Walter B. Wriston for the S.W.I.F.T. Conference SIBOS '82 on 23 September 1982. The original speech is located in MS134.001.005.00004.
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