Global Village

Global Village

THE GLOBAL VILLAGE ________________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________________

[From the July 1992 issue of IEEE Computer]

OPENING DOORS IN THE GLOBAL VILLAGE Dr. Ross Alan Stapleton Central Intelligence Agency

This material has been reviewed by the CIA to assist the author in eliminating classified information, if any; however, that review neither constitutes CIA authentication of material nor implies CIA endorsement of the author's views.

With the enactment of the High Performance Computer and Communications Initiative (HPCCI), the US is a step closer to the realization of a National Research and Education Network. The NREN will serve as an "Information Age interstate," and it is being sold first and foremost as a tool for advancing US technological (and thus economic) competitiveness. But this information superhighway is, in the words of the late Ithiel de Sola Pool, one of many "technologies without boundaries." The concrete interstate highway system, for all it has enabled, still constrains us to follow the earth's geography: We are physically confined to a small portion of our hemisphere. But with an electronic superhighway, no place on the globe need be more than a few seconds away.

The US has the world's largest information economy, though other nations (in particular several neighbors across the Pacific) may be surpassing the US in the degree to which information forms the basis of national wealth. It is time for the nation to address both the formation of a domestic information infrastructure, and the updating of its foreign technology policy. The former will need to be competitive with those of foreign counterparts, and the latter should reflect the new realities that the information technologies are creating.

Building An Information State

The IEEE membership should be keenly interested in the growth of the domestic networks -- the NREN as well as the many information services not a part of the NREN. The NREN is intended as a possible model for commercial networking, though it has grown up spectacularly and somewhat anarchically through sizable contributions of community resources. Simultaneously, enormous changes are likely in commercial information services, as suggested by negotiations over the role telephone companies will play in the creation and collection of information. The relationship and evolution of these two enterprises will shape the resulting Information Age landscape and dramatically effect how we work and live in this new era.

The US is not alone in facing these challenges, and it would do well to observe experiments elsewhere. France, for example, has made networked information broadly accessible through Minitel, enabled by the monopoly power of the state telephone service. While the US enjoys the benefit of competition between communications carriers, providers have repeatedly failed to deliver anything resembling Minitel's videotext- based, value-added services. The majority of French telephone subscribers have a national electronic telephone directory at their fingertips, along with thousands of other services; Americans face an electronic landscape dotted with oases, but still largely desert for vast stretches.

When the US built its interstate highways, it had a great many more "rules of the road" than exist today for the information interstates. It could be a mistake to overestimate the virtues of unchecked diversity While it may not be wise to put complete faith in standards, the networks deserve more attention as a national resource than they have thus far received. As they increasingly form the infrastructure for the US economy, they'll need to be made more coherent--and transparent. The question for the coming decade is how best to put information resources into play in a manner in which the content, and not the carrier, is all we care about.

The networks have helped to prove the viability of the information economy, contributing across the board in areas from scientific research to education; but they cannot be expected to function so smoothly they change from an experimental luxury to a necessity. Their growth will require the equivalent of a highway planner. The first incarnation of the HPCCI died in the Congress in 1990 amidst interagency squabbling. The initiative has now been enacted, but there is still work to do in the formation of a domestic information traffic policy.

Recognizing the Arrival of the Global Village: Living With Our Neighbors

While considerable interest and attention have been devoted to the formation of a national network linking high-performance computing within the US, there has also been anxiety from some quarters about the spread of such technologies to other countries. Moreover, with the end of the Cold War, there has been a casting about for new problems to fit old answers of export controls. Because of its dual nature, networking may very well be the straw that breaks the back of past policies: It is simultaneously a technology in its own right as well as the means to make far more of other technologies.

As a technology, networking is subject to export controls. Because the the computers and communications hardware and software necessary for high-speed networking are capable of "dual-use" -- both civilian and military applications -- they are regarded as resources that should be denied to hostile nations. Prior to the Soviet collapse, such nations were more easily defined, and the US, with CoCom (the Coordinating Committee on Multilateral Export Controls), enforced a defacto embargo on a sizable share of information technologies. In the post-Cold War era, there is a far more diverse neighborhood of nations, and it is harder to determine who may pose a threat.

Networking, however, has the power to turn the concept of export controls virtually inside out. There are few if any mechanisms to enact effective export controls on information, and according to the existing legislation, there is no justification for trying to control information "in the public domain" -- for example, the original work churning out of research departments to be widely shared in the US tradition of academic openness.

Donald Douglas, co-founder of McDonnell Douglas, once said, "When the weight of the paperwork equals the weight of the plane, the plane will fly"; the same might be said of the paperwork required to install a supercomputer overseas. US and Japanese supercomputers are in use in a variety of countries, from Brazil to India. Each installation required advance assessments of the likelihood that the supercomputer, once acquired, might be diverted to illicit uses (like designing bombs). Each transfer entailed the drafting of a security plan and arrangements for site inspections at agreed-upon intervals. It has been the CoCom community's business to watch such things very closely.

Now, however, networks have erased the physical borders that made such restrictions a practical policy. According to the National Science Foundation Link Letter, for example, scientists in Australia recently demonstrated the use of a Connection Machine located in Chicago, via the internetworking of Australian and US networks. Similar demonstrations could have been conducted as well from South Africa, Czechoslovakia, or Poland, all of which joined the global Internet within the last year. On the one hand we try to frustrate potential abusers of supercomputers overseas by attempting to meet all the licensing requirements, which imposes extra costs in the form of supercomputer sales delayed or never made. On the other hand we pay minimal attention to the many more powerful machines in the US that are becoming globally accessible. How can such a policy be reconciled?

There is a flow (some might consider it a potential hemorrhage) of information and computational resources out of the US. Traditionally, this gives rise to two major concerns: revelations that might diminish national security, and the uncompensated dissemination of US intellectual capital.

How do we place a value on information? And how do we calculate the costs and benefits of its control, if indeed it can be controlled? By recently becoming a signatory to the Berne Convention, the US has agreed to abide by broad international definitions of intellectual property rights; at the very same time, networks are making information more than ever before. Practically speaking, there may be no way to police much of the global information transfer in the age of global information highways.

The problem is similarly complex when we try to weigh the costs and benefits of networking in terms of national security. One of the highlighted concerns in the "new world order" is the "proliferation of weapons of mass destruction," -- the acquisition by less technologically-advanced nations of the same class of military arms that the major powers have had for years. Networking, we can reasonably expect, will play a part in this proliferation. At a critical juncture, the US drew on the intellect of immigrant scientists (many of the contributors to the Manhattan Project were, in fact, early emigrants from a Europe sliding towards war). Now, any nation hoping to acquire its own capacity to produce modern weapons can comb the globe for assistance. In the 1990s, this need only entail the migration of information -- of ideas -- not of individual scientists.

Of course, there is a beneficial side to all this. Networks grant us the power to gather resources from all over the globe by allowing scientists and scholars to correspond with foreign counterparts. To a degree, such access to the world will defuse the very threats the outflow of certain information might fuel. Networks have the potential to lessen ignorance of foreign cultures -- to help dispel the myths and misunderstandings. If the US is to become an information sieve in this Information Age, it can also benefit as other countries become less opaque as well.

The global information landscape varies enormously. Outside of the industrialized nations, the pervasiveness of the information technologies falls off dramatically. This is not to say that the networks cannot give us access to significant portions of the developing world: We just have to recognize the appropriate technologies that provide the tools. In the former USSR, simple message-passing protocols, PCs, small minicomputers, and the switched telephone system has permitted the creation of a sprawling and fast-growing network -- Relcom -- that now links hundreds of computers and thousands of users from the Baltics to the Caucasus to Eastern Siberia.

The US and other industrialized nations will find their own interests served by keeping a finger on the pulse of global science and the technologies advancing in a hundred countries worldwide. Forty years ago the US was comparatively isolated, inventing the hydrogen bomb and the intercontinental ballistic missile on one side of the Atlantic while the Soviets did the same on the other side. The countries spied on each other, and much of the information that flowed between the two technological communities came through the diplomatic "networks" of embassies and consulates. Governments in and of themselves are, with some oversimplification, little changed in their capabilities. They have, however, begun to use a much greater variety of contacts and resources. An example of the rising importance of private versus government power in amassing information is CNN, the Cable News Network, which is arguably one of the most important sources available to the US government.

But the considered, in-depth assessments required to ensure national security will require something more than CNN. There is little question that the government should maintain its human network of science and technology attaches and counselors with their direct access to developments in other nations. Each diplomatic position the US staffs abroad is expensive, however. To keep a single science attache in Moscow costs approximately $100,000 per year above and beyond the individual's salary, and much more in places like Tokyo. A leased communications line between the extensive US domestic networks and the Relcom network radiating from Moscow would be no more expensive than that solitary individual and could immediately two whole communities substantially closer together.

Of course, there is no reason for the government not to emphasize both, maintaining a physical presence abroad even while expanding a virtual presence through the networks. While compiling material for this article, I corresponded via electronic mail with David Kahaner of the Office of Naval Research, which maintains a liaison office staffed with scientific experts in Tokyo and a second office in London. Dr. Kahaner has access to the Internet through a Japanese university, and uses that access to send back a stream of reporting on Japanese activity in supercomputing and artificial intelligence, as well as the various aspects of Japanese government programs -- for example, the Real-World Computing Program (formerly New Information Processing Technologies), sponsored by MITI. This reporting is immediately available to a broad audience in the US and anywhere in the world the networks reach. Equally important, Kahaner is available as well.

The networks may also be the cheapest means of enabling the sort of citizen diplomacy that President Bush called for in May of 1990. He spoke in the context of the vacuum left in Eastern Europe by the retreat of the USSR. The opportunities today, with the actual collapse of the Soviet Union, are even greater. Cynics might interpret the call for citizen diplomacy as a desire to pass the buck on foreign aid, but it is also apparent that the information technologies are empowering private individuals and groups as never before. Individuals and government could take up such a challenge, working together for their mutual benefit.

Even with the phenomenal progress in making computers faster, more powerful, and better able to augment the human mind, the most important resources on the networks are still people. Much of the "advertising literature" on the coming NREN and the rest of the HPCCI tends to stress only the highest end of the application spectrum: the transfer of complex medical scans and multidimensional dynamic models to large color workstations at megabits or gigabits per second. There is less emphasis on the networking of people. Perhaps this is because the organization of electronic communities will be accomplished not by any new technologies the HPCCI might fund but by an investment in time, community resources, and our own re-education as we learn to perceive ourselves as members of the global electronic community.

In the past few years, the electronic mail address has become ubiquitous in some professional communities. Starting from zero just three or four years ago, calls for papers and conference announcements in Computer and the Communications of the ACM now list e-mail points of contact well over 80 percent of the time -- nearly 100 percent for US events. But the e-mail address is far more a personal tag than an organizational tool: Within our electronic space we need to build the same sort of organizational structures we have in the traditional world.

Some Recommendations

The US should define a modern information technology foreign policy in light of the new political and technological realities. Balancing the pros and cons of exporting networking technologies should include in the equation the very real gains that might be made through strengthening the bonds between the electronic communities and affording the nation better access to the rest of the world. The US government could play a role in building bridges, thereby enticing its citizens to take ideas and expertise abroad for the good of both the US and those countries which might be brought into closer collaboration. This will the leveling of some of the remaining barriers, especially those whose raison d'etre has been made obsolete by the transformational power of information technologies. When we have cleared away the obstacles justified only by our Cold War fears, we ought to consider investing in the global infrastructure, though merely reducing bureaucratic barriers may be enough to entice private interests to make that effort.

For our part, as individuals and representatives of nongovernmental societies, we need to foster the extension of the professional communities along these new information roadways. By recognizing the new realities and taking advantage of the information technologies now in the hands of private citizens, we can help fill the vacuums left in the wake of the enormous political changes that have recently swept the globe.

1. I. de Sola Pool, "Technologies Without Boundaries: On Telecommunications in a Global Age," E. M. Noam, ed., Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1990.

2. "Bush Announces `Citizen Democracy Corps,'" UPI, May 12, 1990.

3. "Finding Common Ground: U.S. Export Controls in a Changed Global Environment," Panel on the Future Design and Implementation of U.S. National Security Export Controls, National Academy of Sciences, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 1991.

Ross Alan Stapleton is an analyst with the Central Intelligence Agency, Washington, DC 20505. His e-mail address is

Editor: Ali B. Ali-Dinar
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