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

Wriston, Walter B.

Chapter Ten

Power to the People

Chapter Ten

Power to the People



A system of genuine people power is being created and the groundwork laid for building a rule-of-law country.

Mikhail Gorbachev

THE OLD REVOLUTIONARY CHANT "POWER TO THE PEOPLE," usually accompanied by a raised clenched fist, has now gone out of fashion. The failure of the socialist model has become too evident. The phrase probably came from the battle cry of the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution when the slogan was "Power to the Soviets." In America in the 1960s the Soviet slogan was corrupted into what some called "participatory democracy," and people like "Tom Hayden of Students for a Democratic Society were calling for a transfer of power to the 'people,' whom they were able to identify as themselves."[102]  Later on, the "Power to the People" slogan was adopted by Bobby Seale as the chant of the Black Panthers. Needless to say, the last thing many of these people had in mind was actually giving all of the people a real voice in their government. But that is what is happening now.

While this radical political movement has lost its momentum, the information age is rapidly giving the power to the people in parts of the world and in a way that only a few years


ago seemed impossible. What has made the impossible almost inevitable is the technology of modern communications.

The degree to which people were isolated, one from the other, before the days of modern communication technology is hard even to imagine now. People still alive today in America remember well the advent of radio, which brought into the isolated farmhouse voices from far away, music to listen to, and plays and musicals to fill the home with a richness of information undreamed of by even the wealthiest potentate in former days.

Few people foresaw the impact of radio, and the concept that it would ever be used for entertainment developed slowly. Even so great a futurist as H.G. Wells believed it was a gimmick, a transient phenomenon at best. "I am reported to be pessimistic about broadcasting," Wells wrote, but "...the truth is that I have anticipated its complete disappearance -- confident that the unfortunate people, who must now subdue themselves 'listening in,' will soon find a better pastime for their leisure."[103]  In 1916, David Sarnoff sent a memo to his boss at Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company that read as follows: "I have in mind a plan of development which would make radio a household utility in the same sense as a piano or phonograph. The idea is to bring music into the house by wireless."[104]  No action was taken on Sarnoff's memo, and it was left to Dr. Frank Conrad to launch radio entertainment more or less as a by--product of his experiments with wireless. He found there were a lot of people who "enjoyed listening to the phonograph records which he put on the air; and the Westinghouse people set up a station to provide such entertainment and thus stimulate the sale of sets."[105]  Despite the complaints of wireless operators, radio caught on. The Democratic convention in June 1924 was carried live, and then two years later the first broadcast of a World Series game took place, an event heard by 15 million people. The world was never the same.

Today radio is omnipresent, in many of its different forms, not only for news and entertainment; it has many other uses. There presently exists, as we have seen, a hand-held radio device that locks onto the transmission from satellites and identifies one's exact location on the planet within a few meters. This is a far cry from the year 1931, when one of the world's most exciting events occurred. A young aviator from Texas named Wiley Post and his copilot, Harold Gatty, flew around the northern part of the world in the amazing time of eight days, fifteen hours, and fifty-one minutes. In anticipation of the event, I had wound a coil on an old Morton salt carton, obtained a cat's whisker and a crystal from a mail-order catalog, and borrowed a pair of earphones. With this crude homemade radio I sat in rapt attention as an unseen announcer described how Wiley Post brought his plane in for a landing at the end of his record flight. While the flight made history, it was the radio that brought the event to the attention of the world.

As men and women communicate with each other, either face-to-face or via satellite, all of the important relationships that govern modern life are affected. The interactions between the individual and the corporation, between the individual and the state, between one corporation and another, and between one sovereign government and another are today being profoundly altered.

Relationships between individuals are based on communication of one kind or another. The advent of the telegraph in business and the telephone in private life forever changed individual relationships by making it possible to communicate immediately over long distances. Like much new technology, when the telephone was new, even skilled politicians failed to grasp its importance. President Rutherford B. Hayes, after participating in an experimental telephone conversation between Washington and Philadelphia, commented: "That's an amazing invention, but who would ever want to use one of them." Today the President of the United States, sometimes


to the distress of his cabinet officers, routinely picks up the phone to talk to world leaders wherever they may be -- world leaders are no different in this respect than you and I. But the difference between this new form of diplomatic contact and the dispatch of a meticulously drafted note prepared by foreign policy professionals is immense (to say nothing of the records lost to history). Add to this the fact that decision makers sitting in the various situation and crisis-management rooms in the White House, the Department of State, and the Pentagon are often getting their information faster from the CNN News monitor than from official channels the dimension of change becomes clear. While we are aware of this situation in a casual sort of way, those in a position to make policy must make a deliberate and powerful effort on a daily basis to realize the magnitude of change which has overtaken us. Their job is not to make some slight adjustment in their perception of the way the world's diplomatic games have been played for the last few hundred years but, rather, to understand an entirely new game, the rules of which are still being written. One new rule that is becoming more and more manifest is that technology has begun, in many instances, to bypass politics. As we have seen, the global financial markets have become the transmission belt for conveying the world's judgments about national economic polities. In a similar manner, the information technology that touches all of us each day has become the conduit for the myriad demands of citizens and consumers made to corporations and governments.

As hundreds of millions of people watched in awe and fascination, people took to the streets by the thousands in one Eastern European country after another and indeed in Moscow itself. No government, no matter how repressive or authoritarian, can over time stand in opposition to what Jefferson called "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind." No one should be naive enough to believe that the totalitarian powers of the world will give up easily, as the


events in Tiananmen Square in China remind us all. But information is the virus that is carrying the powerful idea of freedom to the four corners of the world, and modern technology assures that sooner rather than later everyone on the planet will have heard the message.

Modern information technology is also driving nation-states toward cooperation with each other so that the world's work can get done. As news of the planet's problems, real or perceived, spreads, it becomes manifest that there are many problems that cannot be attacked effectively by any one nation-state, no matter how powerful. Events in one area may have huge consequences in another. Acid rain and the greenhouse effect are but two recent examples that are beyond the control of any single sovereign. The spread of information is being urged along by a host of new devices that appear almost daily.

The fax machine has become, in effect, the pamphleteer of the late twentieth century. In August 1991 the army of the USSR closed down all the radio and TV stations in Leningrad in an attempt to cut its cities off from news from the outside world. They overlooked the fax machines, and via fax, stories of the turmoil in Moscow were handed out on the barricades. These machines have joined audio- and videocassettes in spreading the word -- good or bad -- to an increasing percentage of the world's population. In addition to these devices, laptop personal computers are now tied together through myriad networks and thousands of computer "bulletin boards," and are employed to post and display news and information about everything from world events to dating services. The law of technology is the law of convergence, and just as consumer pressure is forcing computer companies to find ways for differing computer systems to cooperate in order to solve problems, so nation-states are being forced to find ways to arrive at common standards. It is ironic that aerospace industry -- which is one of the most technologically advanced industries in the world -- is the last to adopt the


metric system (perhaps because of the influence of American companies).

In a metric world, the aerospace industry remains the primary inch/pound holdout...Even Europe's Airbus Industries builds aircraft for inch/pound tools. Pilots and air traffic controllers through the world report altitude in feet and distance in nautical miles, except in the Soviet Union and China.[106] 

Despite this aberration, few would doubt that if Americans wish to compete in the global market that has gone metric for spare parts and materials, sooner or later these standards will be adopted.

As information technology brings the news of how others live and work, the pressures on any repressive government for freedom and human rights will soon grow intolerable because the world spotlight will be turned on abuses and citizens will demand their freedoms. While old power structures will resist this kind of outside interference, technology will render them obsolete. At the end of the day, technology will be seen to have brought effective pressure for reform. As the number of places on the planet grows where power really resides in the people, the world will become more, not less, complex. Democracy, which is simple in concept, is in practice an exceedingly complex system. We are not accustomed to living and operating in a kind of international democracy. We have lived our lives largely in the world dominated by two superpowers.

In this new world, both nation-states and corporations will have relatively less power. The frustration and inertia that sometimes accompany democracy will more and more affect the international community. In these circumstances, policymakers will have to display qualities of leadership rather than managerial skills in order to influence the outcome of new arrangements. Democracy has always been an act of faith: It rests on the willingness of citizens to obey the unen-


forceable. Those of us who have lived in a democratic world will for some years have a huge advantage in our competition with the world.

Instant communication will not in and of itself create understanding. Thinking about the whole explosion of information and the way it is transmitted throughout the world, one might visualize a pyramid: At the bottom of the pyramid are data; the next layer up is information culled from all the data; the next layer is our experience. Each individual is the product to some extent of the velocity of his or her own experience, and it is the information filtering through that experience that in the best of circumstances creates wisdom at the top of the pyramid. This process is by no means foreordained. Advanced technology does not produce wisdom; it does not change human nature; it does not make our problems go away. But it does and will speed us on our journey toward more human freedom. As Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., wrote, "...the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market..." The new electronic infrastructure of the world turns the whole planet into a market for ideas, and the idea of freedom has proved again and again that it will win against any competing idea. We are thus witness to a true revolution; power really is moving to the people. Freedom is an individual attribute can be abused and debased, but as Lincoln put it: "Is there a better, or even an equal, hope in the world?" The age of information is helping to answer that question for the people of the world.


[102] William Safire, Safire's Political Dictionary (New York: Ballantine Books, 1980), p. 560.

[103] Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky, The Experts Speak (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), p. 207.

[104] Agnes Rogers and Frederick Lewis Allen, I Remember Distinctly (New York: Harper Brothers, 1947), p. 37.

[105] Ibid., p. 36.

[106] Aviation Week & Space Technology, November 1989, p. 7.