Remarks by Walter B. Wriston

Wriston, Walter B.


A little over twenty years ago when computers occupied entire rooms, when satellite technology was in its infancy, and fiber optic cable was only a dream, a group of prescient people got together to establish a private multinational organization to study policy issues affecting telecommunications and broadcasting. Originally, the organization was called the International Broadcast Institute, but later, in 1977, became what we know today as the International Institute of Communications. Looking back from the perspective of twenty years, one of Marshall McLuhan's aphorisms comes to mind. As usual, he reversed the conventional wisdom. He said, "Invention is the mother of necessity." The inventions that caused the necessity of founding the IIC were computers and telecommunications. The convergence of these rapidly changing technologies created a whole new set of policy problems. What was needed was an independent membership organization to look at emerging issues that were not tied to any one country, or any one industry, or to any one government. Over the years the IIC has been working successfully to fill that role.

Today there is a growing awareness among government and business policy makers that a new Information Age is slowly supplanting the Industrial Age, and that this emerging information society really is very different from what we have known and may well call for new responses from both the public and the private sectors. This awareness did not arrive as a sudden flash of insight, and was, in fact, long resisted by those who took the position that real economic growth came only from manufacturing. As it became clear that the emergence of the information society did not mean that manufacturing would disappear any more than the advent of the Industrial Age meant that farming would fade away, even skeptics became believers. Indeed, it is one of the anomalies of our time that even as we enter a new age, the farm problem still looms large on the political landscape of the world. Each massive change that washes over our planet brings its own set of new problems, new opportunities, and each forces societies to adjust in greater or lesser ways. In the case of the information society, almost all phases of life are affected.

A great American journalist, Mike O'Neill, summed up the impact of the information revolution by saying that it is "hurrying the collapse of old orders, accelerating the velocity of social and political change, creating informed and politically active publics, and inflicting conflict by publicizing the differences between people and nations." In short, the impact of the information revolution touches all of our lives. It is altering the balance between the public and private sectors; it is threatening many traditional power structures, and it is reshaping the way we think about public and private organizational structures. These changes are magnified in our minds by the speed with which they are taking place.

It used to be that there was a long lag time between the invention of a new technology and its application. Two examples serve to make the point. Over 200 years ago, in 1775, a Frenchman named Duperron and an American called Bushnell both made significant inventions which were destined to alter the balance of power by changing the way wars were fought. Duperron invented the machine gun and Bushnell the submarine. Despite the constant clamor of all military men for ever increasing destructive power, both inventions were basically ignored for more than 100 years. At the start of World War I, British Field Marshal Douglas Haig opined that the machine gun was "a grossly overrated weapon" and his French colleague, the Director-General of Infantry, told members of the French parliament that "this weapon will change absolutely nothing." Mr. Bushnell's invention fared no better. Even such a futurist as H.G. Wells, as late as 1902, said that his "imagination refuses to see any sort of submarine doing anything but suffocate its crew and founder at sea."

Such misjudgments about the usefulness or impact of new technology are the stuff of history, but they should serve to remind us not to dismiss too quickly contemporary ideas that seem at first to be either impossible or useless. Despite the lessons of history, each generation tends to view with either apathy or alarm new ideas that upset their lives or life styles. In the past, societies had time to adjust to new technology because the time lag between invention and application was often long. Today we no longer have the luxury of gradualism.

This organization deals with technologies that are not only changing at an accelerating pace, but are moving into the marketplace at a speed never before seen. Scientific knowledge is currently doubling about every 13 to 15 years, and there is every prospect that this compounding of man's knowledge will accelerate rather than slow down. The effect on our societies is huge, but we are only at the beginning of the process, not the end. Recently the great computer scientist and pioneer, Carver Mead, wrote that "The entire Industrial Revolution enhanced productivity by a factor of about 100, but the micro electronic revolution has already enhanced productivity in information based technology by a factor of more than a million -- and the end isn't in sight yet."

Our reaction to these massive changes can either echo Montesquieu's complaint in the 18th century that the new mills were taking work away from the farmers, or we can embrace change to build better, more productive societies. However much we may want to pursue yesterday, we all now know that once the genie of technology is out of the bottle, it won't go back in. All attempts to roll back time or effectively block new technology's effects on society are doomed to failure. Perhaps Stewart Brand, in his book on the Media Lab, said it the most bluntly and succinctly: "Once a new technology rolls over you, if you are not part of the steamroller, you're part of the road."

While technology in and of itself is the intellectual province of a relatively few people, its effect on society at large can range from trivial to pervasive. Whole new businesses, employing thousands of people, have been built by men and women having the wit to see commercial possibilities in scientific discoveries. The remarkable thing about these new businesses is that often they are built and flourish in the face of conventional wisdom expounded by so-called experts who endlessly repeat that no economic opportunities will flow from the new technology. Examples abound. Although Edison foresaw no commercial possibilities in the phonograph he invented, others did and built a huge industry that is still going strong. When the radio came along, it was the view of many that it heralded the demise of the phonograph, and later we were told in solemn tones that television would mark the end of radio as a viable enterprise. Today, political and economic battles are being fought over digital tape and high resolution television.

It is not unusual that each new improvement in communications is viewed with alarm by those who control the current technology. In the United States, cable television is a case in point. Thomas Hazlett recently pointed out that: "Until the mid 1970's no cable company could legally build a system to provide more than two new signals to any home within the 50 largest television markets." This anti-competitive stance fell before the deregulation movement of the 1980's, the demands of consumers and legal actions to protect freedom of speech guaranteed by our Constitution. Professor Lucas Powe of the University of Texas summed up the increasingly unscrupulous effort by cities to limit cable TV this way: "A city may protect its streets, but it may not control who sends messages or what messages are sent. Only the fact that cable is a newer technology could mystify this truth." In our country, the right to speak in the park, compete in cable, or publish a newspaper -- all vital parts of free speech-- are increasingly being seen as one and the same constitutional issue. Cable TV is but one of the ways we are using to examine our world. All of this new technology is changing our understanding of how we live and how governments operate. It was not always the case.

The great historian, Barbara Tuchman, once observed that the reason we know so little about the daily life of feudal serfs was that almost none left a written record. Most serfs could neither read nor write, and there were no such things are tape recorders, let alone video tapes. We have been forced to rely for the history of that period on the perceptions of feudal lords whose views of reality might not always correspond with those of their servants. Today hundreds of millions of people can watch a sports or news event in real time anywhere in the world and draw their own conclusions based on what they see on the screen. Years from now, historians trying to puzzle out our age will have these same video tapes and will have to reply less on the written record of participants and contemporary observers.

The choice, which once existed in some degree, of isolating one's country from the rest of the world is no longer open to any nation in the waning years of the twentieth century. The world, for better or for worse, is now bound together by an electronic infrastructure that carries news, money and data anywhere on the planet with the speed of light. It is tempting to take the attitude expressed in the song: "Stop the World, I Want to Get Off," but it is no longer possible to hide anywhere on this planet. The technology is moving faster than the political process in many countries.

This is a far cry from the situation that obtained on May 27, 1921, when the American Congress in its wisdom passed an Act mandating "that no person shall land or operate in the United States any submarine cable directly or indirectly connecting the United States with any foreign country...unless a written license to land or operate such a cable has been issued by the President of the United States..." This law, which is still in effect, would seem a little quaint to a person setting up a mail order satellite dish in his backyard capable of pulling in over 150 channels of television. The law would seem just as anachronistic to people walking into stores all over the world to rent VCR tapes providing every conceivable form of entertainment and instruction. Borders have now become so porous that some long held political positions are in jeopardy. National cultures, that have been formed over long periods are being challenged, or even changed by other cultural values flooding the airways from across a border or from the other side of the world. Suddenly people are able to see and hear how people in other countries live and work and govern themselves. Since, aside from the Indians, all Americans immigrated from some other part of the world, this situation seems more normal to us than to others whose national populations have seen little or no immigration from abroad.

In addition to the impact on national cultures, the global market for news, money and capital that now exists, has fundamentally altered the traditional power of governments and central banks to control events. Whenever anything of importance happens anywhere in the world, tens of thousands of computer screens light up in hundreds of trading rooms around the world, and traders buy or sell national currencies based on their evaluation of the news. This enormous flow of data has created an Information Standard which has replaced the gold standard and the Bretton Woods agreements. The electronic global market has produced what amounts to a giant vote-counting machine, which conducts a running tally of what the world thinks of a government's diplomatic, fiscal and monetary policies. That opinion is immediately reflected in the value the market places on a country's currency.

Governments do not welcome this Information Standard any more than absolute monarchs embraced universal suffrage. The size and speed of the worldwide financial market doom all types of central bank intervention over time to expensive failure. The fundamental difference between the Information Standard and all former arrangements is that no nation can resign from the global market by holding a press conference. There is no place to hide. No matter what political leaders do or say, the screens will continue to light up, traders will trade, and currency values will continue to be a global plebiscite on the actions of governments.

This is a truly new phenomenon in the world and is causing a fundamental shift of power. Such massive changes pose new public policy issues.

The one thing certain about the future is that long after all the current questions are resolved, new ones will arise. While the lawyers, the politicians and the technocrats struggle to preserve the status quo, all branches of science will continue to move forward into uncharted waters at an accelerating pace.

Unlike times past, you and I and indeed the whole world now become aware of events with very little time lag. But even more remarkably, future generations will be able to learn our reactions to events and the policy choices our societies make with much greater precision than in the past. This kind of detailed record about life on this planet is in itself something new under the sun. In an effort to deal with all these emerging issues, different cultures take different approaches.

In my country, there have sprung up many organizations which attempt to influence public policy on all manner of subjects. These are the so-called "think tanks" -- groups of scholars and thinkers who pour forth a torrent of well researched and closely reasoned papers on current issues of the day. They encompass all political stripes, ranging from the far right to the far left, and each contributes something to the debate.

In a certain sense, the IIC is a kind of multinational "think tank" for the Information Age, in that we furnish a forum for the thinkers of the world to advance their views. We are unique, however, in that we bring together the best thinking of senior business people, policy makers and academicians. Moreover, the IIC conducts a program of broad based research and projects and publishes a leading professional journal setting forth views on current developments and issues.

This meeting in Washington follows the tradition. We are indebted to members of the Conference Organizing Committee who have worked hard to evolve an agenda that reflects the key issues in the global communications environment. And we are privileged to have a distinguished panel of speakers who will share their views on these issues.

I believe we can look forward to an exciting and productive conference. It is a pleasure to be here with you, and I encourage you to take advantage of the opportunities you will have over the next few days to renew old acquaintances and make new ones among people who have a shared interest in shaping the future of communications.

Thank you.

  • The document was created from the speech, "Remarks by Walter B. Wriston," written by Walter B. Wriston for the International Institute of Communication on 13 September 1988. The original speech is located in MS134.001.009.00004.
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