Bits, Bytes, and Diplomacy


An American historian once opined, "Peace is the mastery of great forces; it is not the solution of a problem." Great new forces are at work in the world, and if we are to master them, the beginning of wisdom is to recognize that the world is changing dramatically and at unprecedented speed. We are in the midst of a revolution. A revolution by definition causes old power structures to crumble and new ones to rise. The catalyst -- but not the cause -- has always been technological change. Now, as in revolutions past, technology is profoundly affecting the sovereignty of governments, the world economy, and military strategy.

We are now living in the midst of the third great revolution in history. When the principle of the lever was applied to make a plow, the agricultural revolution was born, and the power of nomadic tribal chiefs declined. When centuries later, men substituted the power of water, steam, and electricity for animal muscle, the Industrial Revolution was born. Both of these massive changes took centuries to unfold. Each caused a shift in the power structure. Today, the marriage of computers and telecommunications has ushered in the Information Age, which is as different from the Industrial Age as that period was from the Agricultural Age. Information technology has demolished time and distance. Instead of validating Orwell's vision of Big Brother watching the citizen, the third revolution enables the citizen to watch Big Brother. And so the virus of freedom, for which there is no antidote, is spread by electronic networks to the four corners of the earth.

History is strewn with wonderful inventions. Most of them were designed to solve specific problems: the wheel to move things, engines to supply power, clocks and compasses to tell time and direction. The inventions that made possible the information revolution were different. They changed the way we solve problems. When Johann Gutenberg pioneered movable type in Europe in 1436, and when Intel designed the integrated circuit in the 1970s, the way we record, store, access, and peruse knowledge made quantum leaps forward and affected not only how we do our jobs, but what we do.

Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to two free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis