LEGEND SAYS that the American Revolution was begun by a signal to Paul Revere, from the steeple of Old North Church in Boston, telling him which way the British were coming. It could have been either one or two lights -- "One if by land, two if by sea."
The story has been celebrated in song and verse for some 200 years, but it remained for 20th century scientists to tell us what Paul Revere and the Minutemen were really waiting for: It was "one bit of information resolving the uncertainty in a binary choice."
That is, of course, the language of modern information theory. Fortunately, not everyone talks like that, even today, but most of us should probably be paying better attention to the people who do. For, without benefit of poetry or rhetoric, they have plunged us into a revolution that is radically transforming our lives and institutions.
No government or international organization seems to have fully grasped the magnitude of this technological revolution, let alone devised a workable policy for helping us live with it. But as often happens in revolutions, events are not waiting for the policy makers -- whose contributions to date have been mainly to compound the confusion.
The potential exists to extend the long arm of government -- ours and everyone else's -- into everything that can be sensed, recorded, stored or transmitted. Since that seems destined to include almost every form of meaningful human activity, the possibilities for mischief are, if not infinite, certainly beyond anyone's capacity to fully anticipate.
The underlying problem can be reduced to a statement that is simpler than it may seem at first glance: All information traveling in the world's information stream is becoming an homogenous flow of digital bits ("one if by land, two if by sea"); and since, in many cases, computation is being performed on these bits of information while they are in transit, the distinction between computing and communicating -- or the computer and the telephone -- is vanishing. Add to this the fact that there are only a finite number of broadcasting bands on the electromagnetic spectrum through which these bits can travel, and you begin to see why the new technology is producing some very serious foreign and domestic conflicts of interests.
Since the digital information flowing in cables or flying through space will ultimately include such things as television shows, telephone conversations and the stock market averages all mixed together in a single stream, it becomes impossible to maintain distinctions between transmissions carrying news, entertainment, financial data or even personal phone calls, or to pass laws restricting one without impinging on the others. Streams of electrons are either free to move across national borders, or they are not. And the only way to find out what is being communicated in such a stream is to dip into it; i.e., eavesdrop.
The U.S. Postal Service has suggested that we treat it all like ordinary mail, thereby expanding the monopoly conferred on it in 1872 to include "orientations of magnetic particles in a manner having a predetermined significance." The Justice Department says that it questions the "policy justification for stretching the ordinary meaning of words" quite that far.
But this is only the beginning. Because things sometimes happen to those bits of information while they are in motion, they do not always leave and arrive with the same "orientation." If a computer in New York completes a calculation and sends the result to a computer in California, that's communication. But what if both computers are working on the same problem simultaneously? In that case, the 3,000 miles of telephone wire -- or the satellite 23,000 miles out in space -- are serving the same function as a thin chip of silicon in your pocket calculator. They are all part of one big computing mechanism.
The inability to distinguish between computing and communicating is causing world-wide frustration among both the regulating authorities and those they may (or may not) be supposed to regulate. The Communications Act of 1934, for example, imposes on the Federal Communications Commission a legal mandate to insure electronic communications on a fair and reasonable basis, and with it authority to license carriers. The FCC has little appetite, apparently, and possibly no authority, to extend its activities to encompass the computer industry. So it has been struggling to find a workable line of separation. This may resemble an exercise philosophically akin to the efforts of medieval schoolmen to decide how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but it is hardly academic to the folks at AT&T or IBM. Moreover, whatever intellectual compromise the FCC (and the postal, telephone and telegraph agencies of other countries) may eventually reach will almost certainly be outdated by onrushing technology before legislators can finish writing new statutes.
That same technology is also forcing man-made law to come to terms with a natural one -- namely, the finite nature of the electromagnetic spectrum. There are a limited number of locations in space for orbital satellites, and a limited number of wavelengths for broadcasting. Some of the broadcasting frequencies are already crowded and rationing has always been a necessary part of the system. The International Telecommunications Union, which allocates frequencies, is, in fact, our oldest international agency.
The ITU has scheduled the first general World Administrative Radio Conference (WARC) in 20 years for 10 weeks, from Sept. 24 through Nov. 30, in Geneva. To be attended by most of the 154 ITU member states, the WARC will have the authority to modify significantly the existing International Radio Regulations, the laws governing international telecommunications. Since general WARCs are convened only once every 20 years, the changes in the regulations resulting from the meeting may set the conditions for global communications until at least the year 2000.
This is the one area in international affairs where consensus is absolutely necessary. No country is so weak that it cannot make itself heard -- literally. Any dissident nation could, if it chose, dump enough electronic garbage into the spectrum to make life unbearable for everybody. And while no one is threatening to do that, the time may not be far off.
In the past, technicians and engineers of the ITU have met in consultative committees to settle matters by consensus, along nonpolitical lines. There are increasing signs, however, that tomorrow may be different. Members are increasingly tending to group themselves along lines of geography, language and ideology. The ITU begins to look more and more like UNESCO and, in the tradition of Clemenceau, who thought that war was too important to be left to the generals, many of the members now feel inclined to ignore the technicians.
The experts, for their part, may produce very significant social or political consequences in the guise of simple efficiency or technical sophistication. Techniques that allow satellites to be spaced closer together without interfering with each other's messages, for example, can make room for more satellites in orbit, but they may also make receiving stations on the ground too expensive for small companies and poor countries.
Since the International Radio Regulations have treaty status, whatever comes out of WARC will eventually have to be passed on by the Senate. Everthing, in one way or another, will doubtless pass through the hands of Congress. But congressmen, like other policy makers, tend overwhelmingly to be lawyers. If they really hope to harness the new technology rationally, without severely damaging it in the process, they will have to pay more attention to the underlying science than has been displayed in the debate up to now.
Witnessing the struggles of the FCC and the Post Office, one is tempted to hope that we might be on the threshold of an event entirely new in history: a government unable to regulate something because it can't define it. Unfortunately, as Thurman Arnold reminded us years ago in "The Folklore of Capitalism," governments can usually produce enough creative glossologists to prove that a duck is a horse and vice versa, if the result is higher taxes. What is at stake in the great information debate is something far more important than taxes.
Not only rights are at hazard but also opportunities. For the past 30 years, the electronics industry has been the scene of the most intense competition in the history of enterprise. The results of that competition have now brought the world to a point where serious policy decisions must be made while new technologies are still evolving and are far from being fully understood. It would be too bad if the policies adopted had the effect of freezing out tomorrow's innovations for the convenience of today's regulators -- or, for that matter, the competitors.
Both domestically and internationally, the information explosion has become a phenomenon of such complexity that the authority to determine its future direction is one which -- as Adam Smith observed in a similar connection -- "could safely be trusted, not only to no single person, but to no council or senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it."
Developments are going to have to be dealt with on a pragmatic, ad hoc basis and such are the interests involved that every proposal ought to be examined not only with the most scrupulous but the most suspicious attention to the technical details. For it is becoming increasingly apparent that in the great information debate the truth often resides less in the text than in the footnotes.