Microseconds and Macropolicy

Wriston, Walter B.


Information Comes of Age


The first computer was probably designed by Alan Turing in England in 1943 to help crack the Nazi ciphers. It was called Colossus and employed some 2,000 vacuum tubes as digital on-off switches. At about the same time two Americans were also at work for the U.S. Army building a computer called Eniac. It had more than 17,000 tubes and was designed for calculating trajectories of shells and missiles.

From this wartime effort we have moved through various phases to the current micro-computers that have now been married to telecommunications to produce something new under the sun. The onrushing age of information technology gives a whole new dimension to the sovereign's worry about loss of control over men and money. Just as the automobile changed our society in ways that are still unfolding, so today, the third great revolution--the rise of the information society--is affecting the way we live and work.

In the past, machines were inflexible, in the sense that the user had to adapt his uses to the function of the machine. A drill press, for example, could only be used for one type of operation. And if a bank wanted to find a customer's balance on a certain date, it had to run the file of all customers' accounts, because the early computer was a sequential, plodding device, somewhat like the old drill press. With today's information technology, the drill press can produce whatever product the user wants. And with programmable software and the "random access" memory, the computer can be made to retrieve and do what its owner wants--and more. This combination of technologies creates a kind of hydraulics of the mind that is truly revolutionary.

The information revolution, moreover, differs fundamentally from the other technological revolutions that have preceded it. One big difference is that, unlike the situation in the railroad and automobile industries, great sums of capital are not required to start up a successful venture in the information business. The entrepreneurs who put together the chips and write the software know that access to knowledge is more important than money. An individual sitting before his personal computer anywhere in the world can command in micro-seconds vast amounts of information stored in the data bases of the world. Information is becoming the new capital. While some argue that it is simply another commodity, it is really very different from any commodity we have ever seen before. Unlike commodities, information is not used up, though it can go stale and thus may lose its value.

For all these reasons, the information revolution is having a profound impact in many diverse areas. The ancient and basic concept of sovereignty, which has been discussed since the time of Plato, is being eroded by the new technology. Geostationary satellites launched and owned by one country have the capacity to transmit data to other countries. Copyright laws based on Gutenberg's movable type have been overtaken by a technology that allows printers at 100 different locations to spew out identical texts in seconds. The global market-place has, in addition, fundamentally changed the nature and stability of monopolies.

At the moment, the United States can probably marshal more computer power, more telecommunications skills, more data banks, and more venture capitalists producing new software than any other country in the world. How long we can maintain this position no one knows. Even the most powerful cartels decay over time, as OPEC is now learning. If we were ever in a position to be a kind of OPEC of information, that time has passed. Our position is eroding at the very moment when the free flow of data is now almost as important to world commerce as the free flow of goods.

  • This document was created from the article, "Microseconds and Macropolicy" by Walter B. Wriston for the March/April 1985 edition of "Regulation: AEI [American Enterprise Institute] Journal on Government and Society." The original article is located in MS134.003.026.00019.
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