The Inevitable Global Conversation

Wriston, Walter B.


The Inevitable Global Conversation by Walter B. Wriston for the Media Studies Journal

The Inevitable Global Conversation by Walter B. Wriston for the Media Studies Journal


Walter B. Wriston, former chairman and CEO of Citicorp, made these remarks as part of the Center's inaugural Technology Lecture Series address on Oct. 25, 1993.

MANY YEARS AGO, a noted historian delivered a speech titled "How to Achieve the Inevitable." In this particular instance he was talking about the peace that would follow World War II, as it was clear that the war could not go on forever; yet, even as portents of allied victory grew stronger, there was a growing doubt that we could translate victory into peace.

I was reminded of this in reviewing some of the papers that have been delivered at this Center about how to achieve a national policy on information services. Some would argue that policy is already in place and spelled out in the Bill of Rights in our Constitution. Americans have always wished for an open society. John Adams in his put it this way: "Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a general that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge. I mean of the characters and conduct of their rulers."

The first great advances in information distribution had little to do with government, and everything to do with private enterprise. I refer to the idea of a public library open to all. The first libraries in this country were started by ambitious groups of young men like those assembled by Benjamin Franklin, who eventually founded the Library Company in 1731. Franklin was but the first of many public-spirited citizens engaged in this pursuit. There were also many private collections like the one John Harvard gave to a small college in Boston and the combinations of private collections that John Bigelow helped assemble that became the New York Public Library. The eleemosynary tradition continued and more than 2,700 free public libraries were established by Andrew Carnegie, some with matching public funds, in towns across America. To a certain extent their growth and utility was made possible by what we would now call software written by Melvil Dewey in 1876 that permitted the efficient cataloguing of books.

OF COURSE, not everyone has ready access to a library, and some are still unaware of how to use one. The Library of Congress, for example, permits anyone over high school age to use it huge collection, but the harsh truth is that what the elite regards as great books are often left on the shelves and the "trashy" romantic novels have a waiting list. The elite has always believed that it knew what was good for us and could make choices for us. The concept reached its apogee in the writings and subsequent action of an Italian journalist named Mussolini: "Fascism," he said, "denies that the majority by the simple fact that it is a majority can direct human society..." Traveling through Italy at that time one saw huge posters bearing Mussolini's picture and the caption, "He will decide." Mussolini is long gone, but the urge to decide for others survives.

The good news is that the Information Age is making this kind of mind control impossible because there are just too many pathways for news and data to find their way to us. Some worry about this. Media scholar Leo Bogart, for example, complains that "an information highway that's jammed with the likes of Jimmy Swaggart, Madonna and Ice-T can easily be a road to nowhere," and that "knowledge is not distinguished from fact, lies from truth, the real from the imaginary." Just who is to make these judgments is left unsaid. He might have been describing a modern bookstore featuring a book on the conspiracy theory of President Kennedy's assassination, or how the American mind has closed, or even Madonna's contribution to our culture. This attitude in its extreme form can result in Nazi-esque book burnings or, closer to home, in the quaint New England practice known as "Banned in Boston" or in what is now called "political correctness" on some college campuses. Sometimes it is the government that picks out what is good for your mental health.

Media mogul Rupert Murdoch put it this way: "While a lot of British TV is of high quality," he said, "I don't know how many of you want to watch 350 to 400 hours of snooker...or 60 to 70 hours of darts," but, he said, "I doubt you'd like being compelled to pay a $110 annual license fee on your television to finance BBC." Fortunately, Mr. Murdoch has given the British many channels to choose from, and they are exercising that right in increasing numbers. Often what they choose to watch does not sit well with the BBC establishment, which complains about the invasion of American TV programs that, in its view, have little redeeming value. In the meantime, the British TV police prowl around in their vans stuffed with electronic gear, looking for a TV viewer who is watching without having paid the license fee.

WE NEED A WHOLE NEW LOOK at the regulatory framework built by Judge Harold H. Greene, the Federal Communications Commission, the public utility commissions, congressional committees, the various cable laws and tax-code depreciation schedules. Technology is moving much faster than the processes of government. While bureaucracies hunt for old distinctions that technology has erased, alert political leaders use the technology for their own purposes. In the midst of one of the recurring crises in the Middle East, when Jordan's King Hussein wished to reply to some statement made by then --U.S. Secretary of State George P. Shultz, he did not summon an ambassador to launch a formal protest but rather booked himself on CNN. At the same time that the president appears on "Larry King Live," other branches of his government regulate many phases of our society as if we still lived in the Industrial Age. Fortunately for us all, the market has a way of supplying what people need or want if the government gets out of the way, or sometimes even if it doesn't.

The original reason advanced for the regulation of the airwaves by the government was that it was believed that only a limited number of broadcasters could use the air at one time. There was, we were told, a spectrum shortage, so the public interest would be served by regulating the airways in such a way as to assure access to all. Apparently, the government believed that there was no shortage of newspapers, so they would not be subject to the so-called Fairness Doctrine (now happily retired but not dead in the hearts of Congress). Technology soon made obsolete the premise on which the regulation was built. We now use the spectrum at frequencies deemed impossible just a few years ago; doubtless this is just the beginning. In addition, the advent of cable, fiber optics and satellites has overwhelmed the regulators. Information technology is moving data and information, in author Michael O'Neill's words, "across the barriers of space, illiteracy, and national sovereignty to reach virtually all of the inhabited earth.... Equally significant, much of the information is being delivered in an oral-visual form that breaks the monopoly of the world's literate classes."

This has permitted what I call a global conversation. The implications of a global conversation are about the same as that of a village conversation, which is to say, enormous. In a village there is a rough-and-ready sorting out of ideas, customs and practices over time. A village will quickly share news of any advantageous innovation, and if anyone gets a raise or a favorable adjustment of his or her rights, everyone similarly situated will soon be asking for the same. And why not? These people are just like you and me; I see them and hear them every day. Why, the villagers ask, should I not have these things? And so the virus of freedom travels on the global network. And no matter what governments do, the word will get through.

All of this creates huge problems for established power structures. In the past, the educated elites could read about democracy or capitalist prosperity. But hearing or reading of such things is not at all like having them happen in your village, happen to people you can see and hear, people just a few streets or broadcast frequencies away. A global village will have global customs. In a global village, to deny people human rights or democratic freedoms is not to deny them an abstraction they have never experienced but to deny the established customs of the village. It hardly matters that only a minority of the world's people enjoy such freedoms or the prosperity that goes with them: Once people are convinced that these things are possible in the village, an enormous burden of proof falls on those who would deny them.

EVEN THOUGH TELEVISION reaches hundreds of millions of people on our planet, and although the law of technology is the law of convergence, each sector of the industry here at home has dug in to protect its turf It is only human nature for people to resist changes that threaten their pockets or their beliefs. Those who know what we should see and hear for our own good will fight a rear-guard action to "protect" us from ourselves. We have, for example, the complaint of Tom Lewis writing in a recent issue of this Journal, lamenting the success of the Rush Limbaugh show. "Is our 'Doctor of Democracy' really serving us?" he inquires. "Does his success signal a triumph for our free expression? Is this glut of hot air really our victory in electronic democracy, or should we, like Pyrrhus, say, 'Another victory like that and we're done for'?" In calling the program a glut of hot air, Lewis passes judgment. But one person's hot air is another's wisdom. Is this not the age-old cry in modern electronic dress of people complaining that the world is in danger because my particular viewpoint is not demonstrating the same ability to get accepted in the marketplace of ideas as the views of my enemy?

Some 150 years ago, one of the keenest observers of the American scene, Alexis de Tocqueville, observed: "The nearer men are to a common level of uniformity, the less they are inclined to believe blindly in any man or any class. But they are readier to trust the mass, and public opinion becomes more and more mistress of the world."

I would argue that all of this is good news for freedom. Democracy is an act of faith, but it is also based on individual responsibility, and the more information that can be supplied the better the judgments should be (although it does not always work out that way, as today's scientific truth may be tomorrow's joke). Sometimes passions of the moment subsume good judgment. But as the concept of freedom travels on the network at near the speed of light, and as more and more of the world's population know there is a better way to be governed, public opinion, in Tocqueville's words, becomes "mistress of the world." While people worry, sometimes with good reason, about the extremes of the right or the left, Washington, D.C., talk show host Diane Rehm wrote recently, again in the , "Given a variety of opinions on any given subject, people will sort through what may be conflicting ideas and find a way to make sense of the most complicated issues."

IN ADDITION TO the myriad TV images transmitted around the globe, new private computer networks proliferate. While experts debate the shape and structure of tomorrow's data networks, the number of computers connected to networks grows at an exponential rate, and almost everyone agrees that the future almost inevitably is one in which most of the world's multimedia terminals can be connected to each other. While some in government draw up grand multibillion-dollar plans for a superhighway of information, many different companies and universities are already building one--the principal impediment to building the information highway being the government itself. The Baby Bells, with their huge cash flows, are still laying hundreds of thousands of miles of copper wire at home, but abroad bid to install long-distance fiber-optic cable. Congress has awarded cable TV monopolies in every city and then passed laws designed to lower the rates to consumers, but has succeeded only in creating even higher tariffs. In the meantime, the struggle for Paramount Communications is making allies of book publishers, home-shopping networks and Baby Bells. This list goes on and on. The national planners, past and present, of the fading socialist age have never understood the answer to Carl von Menger's question: "How can it be that institutions that serve the common welfare and are extremely significant come into being without a common will directed towards establishing them?" Perhaps a modern-day economist might even be thinking of the thousands of bulletin boards on the network that, like Topsy, just grew.

In America, the well-founded fear of concentration of power helped structure the regulatory framework that was designed to prevent media monopoly. Technology has shattered that monopoly. In simpler days newspapers competed with each other and with radio and television. Newspapers were almost immune from government interference while TV and radio were heavily regulated. Today the distinction between all forms of purveyors of news and data is being erased by technology while, at the same time, information and intellectual capital have become the most important factors of production in our global economy. Knowledge, which at one time was a kind of ornament for the rich and powerful to display at conferences, is now combined with management skills to produce wealth. The vast increase in knowledge in the last decade has brought with it a huge increase in our ability to manipulate matter, increasing its value by the power of the mind and thus generating new substances and products unhinted in nature and undreamed of only a few years ago.

The world is changing not because computer operators have replaced clerk typists, but because the human struggle to survive and prosper now depends on a new source of wealth: information applied to work to create value. Information technology has created an entirely new economy, an information economy, as different from the industrial economy as the industrial was from the agricultural. And when the source of the wealth of nations changes, the politics of nations changes as well.

The transition from one form of wealth creation to another is usually at first denied by the establishment that sees its power eroded, and only reluctantly accepted when it is clear to all that a changed had occurred. For thousands of years, people were nomads wandering from pasture to pasture. Land was not regarded as an asset, and wealth was counted by the number of cattle one owned. When village agriculture began to appear, land became a form of wealth. Rules were laid down about ownership and water rights, and power moved away from tribal chieftains toward territorial rulers. Later, with the advent of the industrial society, making things in a factory was perceived as creating wealth, but as usual the establishment fought it. Even so sound a person as Benjamin Franklin dismissed such a notion. "Agriculture is truly productive of new wealth," he said, but "manufacturers only change forms, and whatever value they give to the materials they work upon, they in the meantime consume an equal value in provisions."

TODAY, WITH THE EMERGENCE of information as the pre-eminent form of capital, once again the establishment is threatened. This change affects not only the creation of wealth, but also military power, the political structure of the world and how business must be structured and run. Conquest and control of territory is rarely worth the cost these days. When natural resources were the dominant factor of production, control of land seemed a sure way to enhance sovereign power. Today, war tends to destroy or smother intellectual capital, which is totally mobile.

The pathways open to the transmission of data and information are now so prolix as to make national borders totally porous and old regulatory distinctions meaningless. Intellectual capital will go where it is wanted and stay where it is well treated. Any teenage computer nerd knows this, but a federal bureaucracy spent around seven years trying to decide where computing stopped and telecommunications started. In the end it gave up.

As both the speed and bandwidth at which data are transmitted have increased to near the speed of light, the value of some information has an increasingly short shelf life. What might be called the time value of information now is reduced in some instances to a few seconds. In today's world, the value of a currency is determined by the price the market will pay for it in exchange for some other currency. Indeed the market is no longer a geographic location, it is tens of thousands of computers linked together worldwide. This network has created the Information Standard that has replaced the Gold Standard. Unlike all other previous international arrangements, governments cannot call a press conference and resign from the Information Standard--regardless of what they say, the screens will still light up and the giant vote-counting machine that is the global market will render judgments on the value of a currency. Central-bank intervention is doomed to expensive failure as the size and speed of the market overwhelms governments. Governments do not welcome the Information Standard any more than absolute monarchs embraced universal suffrage.

Information technology has forever changed the way the world works. It has changed the way wealth is created. It has changed the concept of sovereignty as borders become totally porous. Any such profound change causes disruption in the lives of nations and individuals. Instant communication does not in and of itself create understanding. Advanced technology does not produce wisdom. It does not change human nature nor make our problems go away. But with much trauma and dislocation, it does speed the world on its journey to more freedom for more people.

  • This document was created from the article, "The Inevitable Global Conversation" by Walter B. Wriston for the Winter 1994 edition of the "Media Studies Journal." The original article is located in MS134.003.028.00012.
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