The Twilight of Sovereignty: How the Information Revolution is Transforming Our World

Wriston, Walter B.


Historians looking back on events from the perspective of many years often give names to eras that contemporaries living through those times never contemplated. Several hundred years passed before the eras we now know as the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the Reformation got their names. Today the case can be made that we do not have to wait for some future historian to name the age in which we are living: It is the Information Age. The evidence is plain to see everywhere around us. The world is now tied together by an electronic network that carries news and data, good and bad, true or false, with the speed of light anywhere on this planet. The massive amounts of information that move over the network, combined with the speed of transmission is transforming the way the world works in ways at least as profound as occurred in the Industrial Revolution. It is changing the relationship between the government and the citizen; between one sovereign government and another; between corporations and regulators. The Orwellian vision of Big Brother watching the citizen has been stood on its head, and it is the
citizen who is watching Big Brother. The perception of what constitutes an asset, and what it is that creates wealth is shifting dramatically. Intellectual capital is becoming relatively more important than physical capital. Indeed, the new source of wealth is not material, it is information, knowledge applied to work to create value. The pursuit of wealth is now largely the pursuit of information, and the application of information to the means of production. The sovereign's laws and regulations have not adjusted to the new reality. A person with the skills to write a complex software program that can produce a billion dollars of revenue can walk past any customs officer in the world with nothing of "value" to declare. An information economy also diminishes the rewards for control of territory and reduces the value of the resources that can be extracted through such control. Nation-states that fought bloody wars for the control of territory have often watched these conquered lands turn from an asset into a liability. Many of the natural resources contained within sovereign borders are being replaced by synthetics, which are basically the product of the mind. Borders once stoutly defended have become porous as data of all kinds moves over, across, and through the lines on a map without let or hindrance.
Barbara Ward has observed that revolutions do not occur until people learn that there is an alternative to their way of life. In many parts of the world, all news contrary to the official line used to be tightly controlled. Information about other political systems was hard to come by. Today information about these alternatives is bouncing off satellites into hand-held transistor radios in remote jungles and moving across movie and television screens all over the world. The information technology, which carries the news of freedom, is rapidly creating a situation that might be described as the twilight of sovereignty, since the absolute power of the State to act alone both internally against its own citizens and externally against other nations' affairs is rapidly being attenuated. This does not mean that the nation-state will
disappear; indeed, we will see more countries formed. But the message that is traveling on the network today, which is reshaping societies, was summed up by Baruch Spinoza in the seventeenth century: "The last end of the state is not to dominate men, nor restrain them by fear; rather, it is to set free each man from fear, that he may live and act with full security and without injury to himself or his neighbor...The end of the state is really liberty." We have learned that freedom is a virus for which there is no antidote, and that virus is spread on the global electronic network to people in the far corners of the world who previously had no hope or knowledge of a better way of life. This process is in train and it cannot be reversed, since the technology on which it is based will not go away.
The path of freedom is never smooth, and there will be many reverses along the way, but in the words of the distinguished journalist Michael J. O'Neill, "Today's world cannot be remodeled with yesterday's memories: there are no U-turns on the road to the future." Yesterday there was no global network, but today the whole world understands its power. The protesters in Prague in l988 understood it well as they chanted at the riot police: "The world sees you." And indeed it did.
This book grew out of the extremely good fortune I had to see the world from the perspective of a participant in the evolving global financial marketplace. The velocity of change we observed in every facet of life from health care to the weapons of war was driven by information technology of one kind or another. The monopoly of knowledge held by small groups was slowly broken down, with profound effects on society. It dawned on me that information, in the words of Leon Martel, was "rapidly replacing energy as society's main transforming resource."
As these ideas took shape, Bill Hammett, the President of a remarkable "think tank," The Manhattan Institute, encouraged me to undertake the task of writing this book and
allowed the gifted editor of their magazine,
The City Journal
, Richard Vigilante, to work with me to bring order to the manuscript. His contribution was invaluable, and he has my profound gratitude. For more than twenty-five years Geraldine Stover has been able to read my handwriting and the somewhat less than perfect product of my word processor and turn them into flawless text; she has my thanks for outstanding stenographic support.