THE INFORMATION SOCIETY: FROM VIRTUAL REALITY TO REALITY
By Jean-Guy Rens
Partners in telecommunications Vol.3, No 6,
November/ December, 1995
Magazine for Bell Employees in Quebec
A series of pulses flash through a fiber-optic network--unseen, unheard, unfelt in the absolute optoelectronic stillness. Several million dollars have just changed hands.
What's known in computer jargon as "real time" is nothing other than the speed of light. The accelerating pace of financial, professional and, finally, human transactions is having repercussions on every sector of society: work, leisure, intellectual property, censorship, privacy... Nothing is left untouched.
States Lose Control Over their Currency
When investors lost faith in the Mexican peso in January 1995, the United States came up with a $20 billion bailout package--and lost it all. What good was $20 billion against those invisible pulses speeding through the world's telecommunications networks? It was nothing but a cyberdrop in the bucket.
Every day, sums measured not in billions but in trillions of dollars change hands on financial institutions' networks. These institutions have even created their own private network, known as SWIFT (Society of Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications), to manage their transactions. So far-reaching is this phenomenon that nation states are losing control over their currencies. Ironically, even the banks are at the mercy of the forces they themselves unleashed, as the 1987 stock-market crash clearly demonstrated.
No one controls electronic funds. Even SWIFT merely transmits the financial aspirations and concerns of users around the globe. And SWIFT belongs to a few hundred institutions that strictly limit access to it. Imagine a network open to the public, used by tens of millions of individuals, all loudly proclaiming their rights and rejecting any form of control!
Challenging the Old Economy
The old economy is breaking down. State supervision is considered intolerable by taxpayers and business people alike, while geopolitical borders are being innocently ignored by the users of private and public telecommunications networks.
The private sector is already in upheaval. The repeated divestitures of AT&T, along with successful and failed attempts to merge media industries, reveal the depth of the metamorphosis. Companies everywhere are reducing their workforce, rationalizing operations and reinventing structures.
Tens of thousands of ex-employees--soon to be millions--are discovering their vocation as entrepreneurs. Small and medium-sized businesses are springing up everywhere, and new economic sectors are appearing where least expected. In Québec, an entire language industry has blossomed, based on software engineering, artificial intelligence and automated translation.
But are these new entrepreneurs, often working out of their homes, much different from the "survivors" in large companies who are increasingly teleworking?
Information = Money
What is the key to survival in this new society where information equals money? It's hard to imagine the equation; the notion of money brings to mind bank notes, currency, even the precious metal that underlay its value for so long.
Today, however, money is dematerializing. Information is fluid, intangible and no more visible than the telecommunications networks it circulates on--yet few people know how to process it. Back in the early 1980s, computer giant IBM refused to buy Microsoft because it considered the microcomputer simply a machine.
Wrong! responded Bill Gates. A computer is a series of useful or entertaining applications unified by an easy-to-use operating system. The outcome of the debate is well-known: IBM has lost its quasi-monopoly over the computer world, and Bill Gates has become the richest man on Earth.
The new information economy is battering the old material-based economy with blows that are far from virtual: bankruptcies and unemployment are the losers' punishment.
Who Owns Information?
The others--those who hope to win or simply survive--must relearn everything, starting with the most fundamental right of ownership. Everyone wants information, but no one wants to pay for it. Most people wouldn't dream of stealing so much as a bun from a bakery, even if they were hungry. Yet who can claim never to have used a borrowed or copied--in short, pirated--computer program?
This is why the primary concern on information highways is intellectual property. In the past, whenever a product or service was distributed in millions of units, it was vital that the producer be identified so that he or she could be remunerated.
Today, economic value depends on the adaptation of a product or service to a specific clientele, at a given moment and in any location. The notion of copyright is increasingly giving way to individually negotiated contracts.
Should the Internet be Censored?
Does the information that Canadian companies blithely distribute on the information highway always respect the law? Everyone knows that hate-mongering and the justification of genocide are against Canadian law. But how can an Ernst Zundel be prevented from raising the Nazi flag and proclaiming the innocence of SS executioners from a server in California?
Without getting into sensitive topics such as anti-Semitism, how can one know whether a service made available on the Internet from Montréal and conforming to Canadian law doesn't constitute an infraction in one of the 135 countries where potential users live?
Naturally, the possibility of censorship springs to mind. Should hate-mongering be censored? Of course! And what about pornography? Where does one draw the line between that and eroticism? Perhaps only child pornography should be censored... but what is the age of majority in Finland? Some anti-abortion groups have taken to publicizing the home addresses of physicians who perform abortions. What can be done?