2. The Case of the Soviet Union: The Dictator's Dilemma

Totalitarian societies face a dilemma: either they try to stifle these [information and communication] technologies and thereby fall further behind in the new industrial revolution, or else they permit these technologies and see their totalitarian control inevitably eroded. In fact, they do not have a choice, because they will never be able entirely to block the tide of technological advance.

George Shultz, 1985

Secretary of State George Shultz penned these prophetic words on international affairs while Konstantin Chernenko was briefly the Soviet leader. Not long after Shultz's article was published in Foreign Affairs, Mikhail Gorbachev assumed the mantle of leadership of the Communist Party and the Soviet Union and then became Shultz's most illustrious pupil. This section examines the role of information in the case of the Soviet Union's demise, much as Shultz predicted. A theory of communication emerges that describes the "Dictator's Dilemma." When testing the external validity with prominent and potentially contradictory examples, the theory proves robust.

The Role of Information

Proselytizing his Foreign Affairs thesis, the U.S. Secretary of State held a continuing "'information age' classroom in the Kremlin" in preparation for presidential summits. Shultz claimed in his memoirs that these tutoring sessions had a "profound impact" on Gorbachev. Recalling meetings in Moscow before the 1985 Geneva summit, Shultz wrote:
I then talked about the information age. . . . "Society is beginning to reorganize itself in profound ways. Closed and compartmented societies cannot take advantage of the information age. People must be free to express themselves, move around, emigrate and travel if they want to, challenge accepted ways without fear. Otherwise they can't take advantage of the opportunities available. The Soviet economy will have to be radically changed to adapt to the new era." Far from being offended, Gorbachev lighted up, "You should take over the planning office here in Moscow, become the new head of Gosplan [the Soviet ministry charged with economic planning], because you have more ideas than they have." (591)

Gorbachev did seem to have learned the lessons well. Three years later, speaking before the General Assembly of the United Nations, he announced,

The newest techniques of communications, mass information and transport have made the world more visible and more tangible to everyone. International communication is easier now than ever before. Nowadays, it is virtually impossible for any society to be "closed." (1988)

Within another three years, as a result of Gorbachev's bid to save the Soviet economy by loosening the reins on information, his closed country disintegrated and with it the president's own job.[1]

The demise of the Soviet Union is a particularly telling story in the play between information technologies and political regimes for two fundamental reasons. First, the USSR nearly manifested a sinister synthesis of Orwellian and Huxleyan horrors. In Huxley's words, "The Soviet system combines elements of 1984 with elements that are prophetic of what went on among the higher castes in Brave New World" (1958: 5).

Second, leading democratic theorists were at a loss to explain the ascent of democratic aspirations and institutions after the collapse of the Soviet empire. Samuel Huntington of Harvard University had predicted in 1984 that "The substantial power of anti-democratic governments (particularly the Soviet Union) . . . suggest[s] that, with few exceptions, the limits of democratic development in the world may well have been reached" (Huntington, 1984: 218). Furthermore, the realization that democratic aspirations were rising while Soviet economic performance was falling contradicted the widely held development-before-democracy theories that had underpinned U.S. foreign assistance policies since the Marshall Plan. Some early studies, not only of Europe, were also supportive of these policies. In the case of southern Asia, for example, Charles Wolf, Jr., analyzed India and found, tentatively, that economic development reduced the vulnerability to political extremism, which would have been inimical to the evolution of democracy (1960). Thus, a prevailing justification for economic aid was that "democracy would be an organic outgrowth of development" (Muravchuk, 1991: 182).

The theoretical foundation for the belief subordinating democracy to wealth hailed back to ancient Greece and Aristotle. The statistical analysis of democracy's correlates began with Seymour Martin Lipset. He confirmed a significant correlation between democracy and development and argued that the latter was a necessary condition for the former (Lipset, 1959). Yet he and other proponents had to concede that

the emergence of multi-party electoral systems in Africa and the ex-Communist states of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in the late 1980's and early 1990's will sharply reduce the relationships [between economic development and democracy]... Many extremely poor countries are now much freer than before (Lipset, Seong and Torres, 1993: 170).
The cresting of democracy's "third wave"[2] in the countries of Eurasia with mal-developed economies is inexplicable without an alternative theory.

The seed of democracy that grew to crack the foundation of the Soviet monolith blew in from a different wind. Politicians, analysts and journalists have all pointed to information currents for having turned political weathervanes. In doing so, these people helped validate the prognosis for "closed societies" that Gorbachev had proffered at the U.N. The General Secretary of the Communist Party was more right than he must have wished or imagined. World leaders corroborated Gorbachev's prediction from their own geopolitical perspectives. Israel's Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, for example observed that

Communism fell without the participation of the Russian army, for or against; it fell without having a new political party against the Communists--if at all, it was done by the Communists; it fell without the intervention of the United States, Europe, China or anybody else.... Authoritarian governments became weak the minute they could no longer blind their people or control information (1994).
Further concurrence came from the policy analysis community. RAND analysts Carl Builder and Steve Bankes argued that
[T]he communist bloc failed, not primarily or even fundamentally because of its centrally controlled economic policies or its excessive military burdens, but because its closed societies were too long denied the fruits of the information revolution that was developing elsewhere over the last 40 years (1990: 15).

Journalists agreed too. The Moscow Bureau Chief for the Baltimore Sun, Scott Shane, provided substantial and specific evidence in his book Dismantling Utopia: How Information Ended the Soviet Union. Ultimately, Shane concluded that the August coup which catalyzed the ultimate dissolution of the USSR was

a revolution driven by information that the coup was designed to halt; information that had undermined ideology, exposed the bureaucracy, and shattered the Soviet family of nations. But it was also the liberating power of information that doomed the coup to failure--both the information that over five years had changed people's views of the world, and the information that now fueled the resistance with up to the minute reports. People were better informed than ever before about the past consequences of totalitarianism, helping them better understand now what was at stake (1994: 261).
Information revolution technologies armed those who would resist the coup and political oppression. Thus equipped, opposition forces became viable for the first time in the seven decades of the reign of the Soviet. S. Frederick Starr was among the first to observe that modern "horizontal" communication technologies, as opposed to the "top-down vertical" systems instituted by Lenin and Stalin, were already eroding Soviet control (1988). Electronic mail networks are quintessentially horizontal and Russia's first privately owned and operated network, Relcom, came online in early in 1989 (Press, 1992). Relcom (short for "reliable communication") was implemented specifically to support commercial activity otherwise stultified by the intentionally constrained Soviet telecommunications infrastructure. Supported by its own user fees, this network has blossomed to hundreds of thousands of users. This entrepreneurial networking initiative was well within the letter and spirit of Gorbachev's glasnost campaign, allowing and encouraging information to be unbound for the purpose of revitalizing the Soviet economy. Although economic conditions necessitated its invention, Relcom proved to be a powerful social weapon against centralized power. During the attempted coup in 1991, for example, Relcom played an important role gathering and disseminating information. Recalling the tense moments, Relcom's president remarked how well the system had answered the call to serve the Russian citizenry:
When the putsch took place in August, over those three days we transmitted over the territory of the former Soviet Union about 46,000 pieces of news. We were in constant communication with Europe and America.... We were very much afraid at the time since all other channels were closed (Soldatov, 1994).
A foreign eyewitness effusively lauded electronic mail networks that "had proved worthy of the appellation, 'revolutionary tools.' During the crisis they had provided information around the world, but especially in the Soviet Union when all other forms of communication had been blocked." He gushed further, "I will not be surprised if the bronzed figure representing the proletariat will not be holding a rifle in his outstretched arm, but a printout, and a computer on his lap" (Valauskas, 1992: 47). Glasnet, another major Russian electronic network, was established specifically to support the emergent civil society. Justifiably, in light of these events, Glasnet's executive director expressed his view that "telecommunications can do more for Russian democracy than any other factor." (Voronov, 1994)

Detractors might argue, however, that the weight of the recent democratic reform in the Soviet Union was borne predominantly by conventional, not the new, media. Certainly, conventional media were consequential. Shane described, at length, the positive influence of television and the printed media. Differences between the conventional and the new communication technologies and their political effects are addressed in Section 3. It is, nevertheless, useful to recognize here that the likely biases would tend to underestimate the impact due to electronic networks relative to traditional media for two reasons. First, state control over information must be airtight to be effective. It was Orwell's fear that "if all records told the same tale--then lies passed into history and became truth" (Huber, 1994). Of course, the whole balloon bursts from one small pin prick. The non-destroyed newspaper clipping that Orwell's protagonist, Winston Smith, discovered in Nineteen Eighty-Four could have been such a pin. Similarly, the Soviets were unable to seal their borders from electronic pricks. The international flow of e-mail messages strengthened the conventional media, which could no longer be deprived of outside sources for information. Thus, while ostensible democratizing effects might be apparent on TV screens and newsprint, the "but for" may be a less visible under-girding of robust and reliable electronic networks.[3] Second, the democratizing influence of electronic networks can extend beyond the countries in which they are prevalent. The demonstration effect can be powerful in international affairs. The political transformation of the Soviet Union, at least partially fueled by the new information technologies, clearly influenced the rest of Eastern and Central Europe and arguably emboldened lesser connected countries in other regions of the world, such as Africa, to experiment with more democratic rule.

Iron Fist or Invisible Hand

But, to paraphrase Lenin, what was Gorbachev to have done? Is it possible for authoritarian governments to capitalize on economic growth while preserving social control?

If it were ever possible in the long run, prospects are diminishing for a potentate to hold on to both power and prosperity. Globalization of the economy has created a premium on information flows while technological advancements in telecommunications enhance the political and social potential of these flows. The dictator may be stuck with a stark choice between securing the rewards of either the invisible hand or the iron fist, market success or social control. The mutually exclusivity of the options pivots on information and communication media. These guide the hand yet weaken the fist. Thus Gorbachev's Soviet Union was scissored between the cutting blades of the globalized economy and personalized media. Had President Gorbachev attempted to maintain strict control over information flows, the Soviet economy would have been sliced even thinner. When he reluctantly relinquished some control over communication, the country itself was cut into pieces.

Gorbachev's predicament exemplifies the "Dictator's Dilemma," how to benefit from the global economy without relinquishing domestic control.[4] The Soviet president's problem may have been insoluble but it is certainly not unique. From Saudi Arabia to Singapore, rulers are puzzling the same paradox. In the Kingdom of Saud,

The Saudis have always wanted the latest technological innovations, but the freewheeling communications possible on the Net are a different story. The authorities worry that they will lose their tight grip on political dialogue and public mores. But business executives argue that they need access to the latest information to build a competitive society (Ambah, 1995: 40).
And in the Singaporean city state,
Officials have a vision of the average citizen sitting in his high-rise flat, doing almost everything from banking to shopping to paying taxes and clearing shipments through customs--all at the touch of a computer key. But though new technology can speed up economic transactions, it makes debate about the country's future harder to control (Economist, 1995b: 38).
The technology of communication has changed and with it, corresponding political biases have shifted. In a broader historical context, advancements in the means of communication have profoundly influenced characteristics within and interactions between societies since the time when language was invented. Writing created permanence; the printing press widened distribution; the telegraph conquered distance; the telephone facilitated interactivity; and television mastered visual images. Now, asynchronous electronic telecommunication networks likewise represent another fundamental, substantial, and discontinuous improvement in the ability to communicate. Modern communication innovations differ from previous technologies in fundamental ways that relatively favor sovereign individuals over sovereign governments. (Wriston, 1993). "If we look for historical precedents for this diffusion of power through information away from the elites, the Renaissance comes to mind" (Builder, 1993: 159).

The graphic in Figure 2.1 is helpful in understanding how the dictator's dilemma is a result of advances in communication technologies. The orthogonal axes represent fundamental characteristics of all communications media: Who is able to communicate with whom? Broadcast media, like television, reach large audiences but the ability to broadcast is greatly limited by economic, political and technological constraints. Interactive media, like telephones, can approach universal access, but the number of recipients per message is rarely more than one. Influence increases as more people get the word and autonomy increases with the percentage of the society that can originate and share its own ideas. The dictator's task, to maximize influence while limiting autonomy, used to be easier when technological improvements in telecommunications moved generally in linear paths along the horizontal or vertical axes. The optimal position, from the dictator's perspective, would be in the bottom right-hand corner where everybody receives all of the leader's dictates and none from anyone else. The Jeffersonian democratic ideal resides toward the top right-hand corner where ideas compete in a marketplace comprising many message originators and many recipients. "We the people" implies a public that can communicate with itself. This diagram shares important similarities with the schema proposed by Robert Dahl in his theory of polyarchies. Dahl's concept of "inclusive hegemonies" exists in the bottom right-hand corner and "polyarchies" in the top right-hand corner.[5]

Figure 2.1-Communication Participants

Since traditional broadcast media are located closest to the dictator's optimum they are almost certain to be employed as a powerful political weapon. Along with Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany provides a notorious example. The Nazi Minister for Armaments, Albert Speer, explained at his Nuremberg trial the F[Ydieresis]hrer's penchant for mass communication technologies, "Through technical devices like the radio and the loudspeaker, eighty million people were deprived of independent thought. It was thereby possible to subject them to the will of one man" (Huxley, 1958: 43). Fortunately, perhaps, the Third Reich passed before television became widely available for wholesale exploitation. This device, a precursor to George Orwell's "telescreen" in 1984 bade even more ominous tidings. With gloomy foreboding, Orwell warned that "the machine itself may be the enemy" (Huber, 1994: 33).

Near the vertical axis in Figure 2.1 and parallel to it, increases indicate expanding accessibility of interactive communication. Technological innovations in this direction progress along with economic development. In an insightful study on the emergence of the various organizational structures by which humans order their affairs, David Ronfeldt of RAND has observed that from the beginning, "The rise of the market form, and of the huge, far flung enterprises it engendered, is associated with the development and spread of electric and electronic devices, notably the telegraph, telephone and radio" (1993: 45). Telephony advanced and in the early 1960s, A. Jipp discovered a highly correlated relationship between telephone density that became known as the Jipp curve.[6] Two decades later, the International Telecommunications Union asserted a causal connection in its oft-cited Maitland Commission report, The Missing Link. This report reasoned:

The absence of a system which enables timely information to be sent and received engenders a sense of isolation and frustration, and so raises a barrier between different sections of the population. This cannot but undermine the process of development.
and concluded:
It is our considered view that henceforward no development programme of any country should be regarded as balanced, properly integrated or likely to be effective unless it includes a full and appropriate role for telecommunications, and accords a corresponding priority to the improvement and expansion of telecommunications (Maitland, 1984: 8-11).
This report was followed by other studies which "showed that telecommunications have a multiplier impact on economic development" (Hills, 1993: 24).

Thus, a dictator who eschews interactive communications perhaps does so only at the peril of healthy economic growth. However, E can confine telephone instruments within manageable limits and provide other safeguards to allay threats that otherwise might exist outside Es zone of comfort. Fortunately for E, the technological restriction of one recipient per message dampens the relative ability to influence widely and to organize an opposition force using this communication medium. Additional precautions are also available. Beyond wiretapping, the Soviets, for instance, limited the number of international telephone lines, segregated telephone systems so they couldn't communicate with each other and suppressed telephone directories (Pool, 1983b: 6).

Successful dictators have appreciated the differences in the values and threats of various telecommunication technologies. Broadcasts can be politically profitable while interactivity is likely to be dangerous. As one scholar noted,

It is no coincidence that where civil and political rights have been denied, although the technologies of a centralized broadcasting system used for propaganda have been well developed, residential telecommunications have remained undeveloped (Hills, 1993: 21).
This distinction between communication technologies that both academics and autocrats recognize is not a new idea. Attempts to conceptualize the difference dates back several decades to when the telephone was still young.
Starting in the 1920's, a contrast was sometimes drawn between mass media (such as broadcasting), which had a tendency to impose authoritative and uniform thinking on society, and the effects of the telephone which lent itself to the spontaneous interaction of individuals (Pool, 1983b: 86).
What is radically new, however, is that the region in the direction toward the democratic ideal between the axes on Figure 2.1 is no longer vacant of any telecommunication medium. Electronic networks are the first technology to reach substantially beyond both axes simultaneously, outside of the dictator's comfort zone and into the heart of the diagram. The upshot, as Gorbachev learned, is that while new communication technologies may be enticing as they afford new economic opportunities to rulers who seek to capitalize on global integration, at the same time these technologies may offer political opportunities to alternative power sources who seek to oppose authoritarian control. Computer networks enhance the free association that contributes to democracy with the politically combustible mixture of both autonomy and influence. Everyone who is on the network can both originate and receive messages. By no action of Es own, the dictator has lost the unilateral ability to determine optimal levels of broadcast capacity and interactive capacity independently. With the new media, each implies the other.

Furthermore, the center's exclusive role as provider or inhibitor of information and communication is diminished, especially in the cross-border context. Neither the autonomy nor the influence of electronic networks is constrained by national boundaries. Conversely, broadcasts can be jammed, albeit at great expense, to which the eighty-nine transmitters manned by one hundred technicians on the Byelorussian border stand in silent testimony (Shane, 1994: 61). International telephone services, arranged upon the basis of bilateral agreements between national Post, Telephone and Telegraph ministries (PTTs) can be constricted easily at the central bottlenecks. Such arrangements enabled the former Soviet Union--a country of nearly 300 million people--to restrict the number of international lines to dozens, never more than those on which the Soviet internal security agency could eavesdrop. Nazi Germany constricted international contact by levying high taxes (Pool, 1983b: 86). Controlling abundant electronic computer networks in the future will be both technically more difficult and economically more costly. Hong Kong made an early attempt to exercise authority over the net. An observing journalist described its inevitable heavy-handedness as "trying to catch a speeder by closing down the highway" (Farley, 1995: H2).

Counter-Examples

Actual evidence of a democratizing effect of the new information and communication technologies has been almost exclusively anecdotal. This opens a door for skeptics who can and do offer their own anecdotes that seem to contradict. The Iranian revolution of 1979 is often hailed as a prominent counter-example (Goodman and Green, 1992: 22). In a revolutionary use of the latest personal communication technology, Ayatollah Khomeni distributed his electrifying messages via audio cassette tapes, extensively copied and played over the telephone lines. He successfully instigated a largely illiterate public to revolt against the despotic Shah.[7] Now video cassettes with such titles as "Soldiers of Allah" boost the arsenal of the Islamic fundamentalists attempting to export their revolution worldwide. Disappointingly, sixteen years after the Shah's communication-technology-assisted overthrow, the regime in Iran remains woefully distant from anything that resembles a democracy.

Figure 2.1 is helpful to interpret the Iranian case. Considered within this framework, the result is no longer anomalous. Non-democracy appears as certainly a plausible if not a likely outcome. The Ayatollah's ingenious use of tape-recorded messages, when plotted on the graph, would lie only a hair vertically above television, outside the Shah's comfort zone but far from the democratic ideal. The cassette technology enabled another voice to influence a large audience, but as uni-directional and dependent on extensive religious hierarchies for distribution, a minimal increase in autonomy would not appreciably democratize Iranian society.

The current Iranian leadership now faced with new networking technologies, however, confronts the same dilemma as other autocratic regimes. Middle Eastern scholar Majid Tehranian, writing about Iran, repeated the common refrain,

On the one hand, global communication has made the task of development easier by providing rapid and efficient access to sources of information on science, technology, and markets. On the other hand, it has made the control of human behavior that much more difficult for the centralized and mobilized states focused on strict moral codes and national development goals (1995: 153).
The Tiananmen Square fax machines are another prominent example, to which doubters point, of the new communication technologies failing to live up to their democratizing promise. Eugene Skolnikoff of MIT recognized a facilitating role that information technologies played in the Eastern European democratic revolutions. But, his next breath revealed disappointment that, "In another 1989 revolution, however, in China, they played an equally important role but with the opposite outcome" (1993: 97).

Again, Figure 2.1 is instructive. Fax machine would reside not far to the left of telephones, a technological improvement to expand influence, to be sure, but perhaps not sufficiently far from the zone where the dictator's counter-measures would be effective. Networked communications reside much farther to the left on the graph which suggests that the game is not yet up in the Middle Kingdom. In fact, considering the relatively late introduction of the Internet, the game is really just beginning. Although the Chinese uprising was among the first times that a computer network was used "extensively and for multiple purposes by political dissidents" (Ganley, 1991: 10) The networking dissidents were almost exclusively in the United States because the Chinese in China did not have more than the barest minimal access, less than 5 nodes in the entire country, until at least 1992 (Landweber, 1994). The political ante was raised in 1996 with the official, yet wary, embrace of the Internet. Already the strains caused by these hard choices are beginning to surface. In one particularly troubling recent example, the government decreed that all economic data provided by foreign news services must be approved and supervised by the official New China News Agency, thus threatening to undermine confidence and foreign investment on which the Chinese economy depends. President Jiang Zemin acknowledged that China was in a fix, but made his choice plain, "We cannot sacrifice culture and ideology for a short period of economic development" (Mufson, 1996: 1). Jiang's proclamation was simply a succinct Chinese formulation of the dictator's dilemma.

Although prima facie counter-examples, neither the Iranian nor the Chinese cases challenge the validity of a theorized role of information and communication technology in supporting democratic change. The Russian case upholds the theory and cases of other countries and in other parts of the world are further supportive. Few of these other experiences in which opposition groups were empowered through electronic networks are as well known as the Russians'. In Czechoslovakia, for instance,

Back in '89, Czech students were trying to coordinate the uprising across the nation and ... were running a telecom angle.... The Czech secret police were far too stupid and primitive to keep up with digital telecommunications, so the student-radical modem network was relatively secure from bugging and taps.... By mid-December, the Civic Forum was in power (Sterling, 1995: 102).
Another example hails from Mexico in the Western hemisphere. Independent of where they live, "30m people of the world can read instantaneously the communiqus issued from the jungles of Chiapas by Mexico's Zapatista rebels" (Economist, 1995a: 13). Numerous other cases notwithstanding, the irony is profound that the American President was broadcasting to the Russian public from what had been the Soviet television headquarters in Moscow when Bill Clinton observed, "Revolutions [in] information and communication and technology and production, all these things make democracy more likely" (Clinton, 1994a).


[1] Additional perspectives on the role of information in the demise of the Soviet Union are available in Skolnikoff (1993, pp. 93-102) and Shane (1994).

[2] The "third wave" designation is credited to Samuel Huntington in his book with the same title (1991b).

[3] An institutional example of new media supporting conventional media as an operating principle is that of Internews, a non-governmental organization active in the former Soviet Union, that exploits email to strengthen the traditional news media. More information on Internews is available at http://red.path.net:80/internews/. In a more ad hoc venue, this author gave the first interview for Slovakian Radio Free Europe that was conducted entirely on-line. Even the audio portions were digitally recorded and transmitted over the Internet.

[4] The author is grateful to Larry Press for the appellation "dictator's dilemma" which emerged from private discussions on these issues.

[5] The theory is presented in Dahl (1971). See specifically page 7. The ordinate, liberalization (public contestation), relies on the ability to originate messages and the abscissa, inclusiveness (participation), corresponds with the notion of message receipt.

[6] The relationship is first presented in Jipp (1963).

[7] Fuller accounts of the Ayatollah's revolution and use of personal electronic media can be found in Tehranian (1979) and Ganley (1992, pp. 13-24).


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