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

Wriston, Walter B.


Samuel Morse and his partners waged an intensive campaign to sell their telegraph patents to the U.S. government. They were encouraged by the American Postmaster General, who observed that "It becomes...a question of great importance, how far the government will allow individuals to divide with it the business of transmitting intelligence.... The use of an instrument so powerful for good or evil cannot with safety to the people be left in the hands of private individuals uncontrolled by law."

Fortunately, neither the patentees nor the Postmaster General could arouse enough interest in Congress to obtain an appropriation for the purchase of telegraph rights-so Morse and his friends had to go the private enterprise route.

The initial British telegraph industry was also based on private initiative. In fact, the Cooke-Wheatstone telegraph patent application was filed in December 1837, four months before the Morse application was filed in the U.S. But in 1868 a bill was passed in England authorizing the government to take over the telegraphs and make them part of the Post Office. Similar stories could be told for most other countries.

The quantum leap in technology which has brought about our present information revolution did not happen by accident. The increasing integration of the world's financial system demanded more accurate information at a faster pace than ever before, and thus members of the financial community became the best customers of the communications engineers.

This process has fed upon itself. Satellites gave us the ability to communicate information around the world at the speed of light by bouncing data off transponders miles in space even as the events are taking place. But the rapid transmission of masses of data has attracted increasing government attention, just as the telegraph did 150 years ago. The rights of individuals to privacy, the rights of the sovereign to protect national security, the rights of the people to know, and the ability of markets to function are but a few of the issues which present themselves. None of these issues is either trivial or new, but all of them are attaining higher visibility as technology advances with unprecedented velocity.

  • 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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