Technology and Sovereignty

Wriston, Walter B.




If we look at national domestic politics, we observe a similar phenomenon.

The quality, speed and nature of information spread by the mass media has altered the relationship between the people and their government. Representative government in America is changing. Information technology has made it both possible and politically profitable for politicians to bypass traditional political structures that supported the orderly process of government, and instead move toward the TV cameras to push a particular issue. As more and more leaders do this, the traditional cement of party discipline and consensus government begins to crumble. Adversarial confrontations make good TV drama, but may often lead to bad policy decisions.

The national and international agendas are increasingly being set by the media in the sense that policymakers have to spend a good share of their time and energy dealing with whatever crisis or pseudo-crisis has been identified by the media that particular day. Real issues, deliberative thought and long-range strategic plans are often casualties of whatever damage-control actions are required at the moment. In these circumstances, the old bipartisanship in American foreign affairs has fallen prey to a new divisiveness. The so-called TV docudramas, part fact, part fiction, have even attempted to change the record of past events. The merging of media and message has created a situation wherein, according to Daniel Boorstin, a "larger and larger proportion of our experience, of what we read and see and hear, has come to consist of pseudo-events."

This kind of information is rarely a solid foundation for good policy judgments. However, it characterizes the age in which we live. We live in a world where Yasir Arafat works with a media consultant; where Mohammed Abbas, who hijacked the and murdered an old man in cold blood, appears on American network television, even though he was a fugitive from justice at the time; where the Iranians stage marches for the cameras; and where Soviet spokesmen appear regularly on American TV. The world today is very different from that of Citizen Edmond Genet--now, instead of being asked to leave the country, he would be on Ted Koppel's "Nightline" to protest President George Washington's outrageous policies.

Without passing a value judgment, the fact is that representative government, as envisaged by the Founding Fathers, is no longer operating in the manner originally intended. We may have to think anew about old relationships, but for the moment, the use of information technology has far outstripped the political process.

This problem is not limited to Western governments. If democratic societies face the problem of adapting to what amounts to a wholly new definition of sovereignty, closed societies like the Soviet Union will have a much more difficult time. Their problem is twofold: first, communist regimes have always relied to some extent on their ability to control what their citizens see and hear. This control is now beginning to slip, and from the Soviets' point of view the situation will get much worse. In addition to borders becoming increasingly porous to TV and radio transmissions, studies at Harvard's Center for Information Policy Research reveal that citizens of the Eastern-bloc countries have little difficulty gaining access to VCRs; the number available in Moscow is growing daily. The KGB is concerned that videotapes will be used for -- word coined for "tape publishing"--by political opposition groups.

The Soviet government's second major problem is whether the U.S.S.R. can continue to be a leader in science. Modern scientific research increasingly requires the ability to have access to huge data bases at remote locations. If access is limited to a very small number of scientists, progress will be slowed. On the other hand, opening up supercomputers and data bases to large numbers of men and women obviously loosens the state's control of data. It is a very real Hobson's choice, and the dilemma will only get worse over time.

The phenomenon of eroding government control over the management of institutions and how citizens live and work is not limited to closed societies, but is becoming increasingly evident in the West. National sovereignty and political saliency have traditionally entailed the government's power to regulate major sectors of society, ranging from health care to heavy industries. The increasing difficulty of exercising this power in the information age as opposed to the industrial age was summed up, in the March/April issue of magazine, by the economist George Gilder: "A steel mill, the exemplary industry of the material age," lends itself to control by governments. Gilder continued:

[A steel mill's] massive output is easily measured and regulated at every point by government. By contrast, the typical means of production of the new epoch is a man at a computer workstation, with access to data bases around the world, designing microchips comparable in complexity to the entire steel facility, to be manufactured from software programs comprising a coded sequence of electronic pulses that can elude every export control and run a production line anywhere on the globe.

The advent of the silicon compiler, which is analogous to desktop publishing for chip design, opens up, in Gilder's words, "a great economic cleavage between the interests of entrepreneurs and the authority of national governments." As technology continues to progress, the cleavage will deepen.

  • 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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