The Information Society: From Gutenberg to S.W.I.F.T.

Wriston, Walter B.


The chief attraction of the new technology, beyond its speed, is its low cost to customers. But when a government insists that we use its publicly owned network, we may be forced into an uncompetitive situation subject to arbitrary pricing policies not based on cost. The fundamental building block of the commercial international network is the private line. Only through the private leased line can we get a handle on our costs and plan for the expansion of future services.

Again, history offers instructive lessons. In England, the telephone like the telegraph was also developed privately, but only under restrictive licenses from the Post Office, which already owned the telegraph system. Rates were set very high, no long distance lines were built, and other restrictions were imposed to keep the telephone from becoming competitive with the Post Office's telegraph system.

The Post Office won in its efforts to slow down the new competitor. The number of telegraph messages almost tripled in Great Britain between 1885 and 1900, while the number in the U.S. increased only 50% during the same period, because Americans were using their new telephones.

The telephone should have replaced the telegraph earlier in Britain than the U.S. because Britain's compact size made it technologically feasible to communicate anywhere in the country by telephone much earlier than in the United States. But at the critical moment, the British postmaster succeeded where the American postmaster failed.

The French did even better: in 1889 the government took possession of the telephone company by force, and in its early years gave the world a telephone system which became the astonishment of anyone who ever tried to use it.

The topology of networks in Europe today is dictated not by such issues as distance and volume of traffic, but by international Telex rates, national prohibition of private lines, and restrictions on the ability to access foreign data bases in real time from remote locations. The problems are not limited to financial transactions, but more and more to other sectors of society. London's Financial Times, for example, is printed in Germany and then flown to London by air freight because of restrictions on the transmission of foreign data bases and typesetting files. Nor can the Financial Times use the quiet hours on other people's leased lines because of the British Post Office's restrictions on sharing private leased lines. There are, unfortunately, many other examples to suggest that in communications we may be traveling in a political direction that is the fundamental equivalent of high tariffs on merchandise.

  • The document was created from the speech, "The Information Society: From Gutenberg to S.W.I.F.T.," written by Walter B. Wriston for the S.W.I.F.T. Conference SIBOS '82 on 23 September 1982. The original speech is located in MS134.001.005.00004.
This object is in collection Subject Temporal Permanent URL
Component ID:
To Cite:
DCA Citation Guide    EndNote
Detailed Rights