Transcendental Destination

Where Will the Information Revolution Lead?



World Wide Web traffic emanates predominantly from the United States and Canada. RAND researchers say the information revolution is fostering a global "realm of the mind" that could form the backbone of an American information strategy.

Twenty years from now, by the year 2020, the information revolution will have altered life on this planet even more dramatically than in the last 20 years, according to the experts. Even if they hesitate to specify exactly what the technological changes might be over the next two decades, the experts offer even more intriguing insights into how those technological changes could, in turn, change us as people, as nations, and as a global web of human thought and action.

With regard to technological breakthroughs, the fear of forecasting the future is forgivable. Back in 1980, a mere 20 years ago, almost no one could have predicted the explosive growth of the World Wide Web. The Arpanet was then the U.S. defense department's precursor of the Internet, which later did lead to the emergence of the World Wide Web. But in 1980 there was still no hypertext language for navigating from web site to web site, still no graphical interface, nothing like today's chat rooms, no laptop computers, and no cell phones, let alone cell phones that could deliver e-mail via satellite. Conversely, predictions that once seemed reasonable now appear naïve in retrospect. It's already the year 2000, for example, but cars still can't fly.

With regard to overall technological trends, on the other hand, efforts to anticipate the future are more than exercises in futility. While it is risky to predict the future in detail, it may be even more foolish not to prepare for it at all, especially when the future promises to bring changes as swift and pervasive as those made possible by the information revolution.

Consequently, several U.S. government agencies have asked RAND to take the lead in broadly outlining what may lie ahead and boldly deducing the implications for government and society. The work has proceeded on three fronts: (1) to chart the future course of the information revolution throughout the world over the next 10-20 years, (2) to identify potential forms of global governance that might become necessary as a result, and (3) to suggest a national "information strategy" appropriate for a global information age. The research sponsors include the National Intelligence Council, a small center of strategic thinking within the U.S. intelligence community; the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which created the original Arpanet in 1969; the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Although the three strands of research have proceeded independently of one another, they build on each other in compelling ways.

To chart the future course of the information revolution, a team of researchers led by Richard Hundley has initiated a series of international conferences of leading computer scientists, defense planners, and policy analysts. One conference, devoted to technological trends, looked beyond Moore's Law--the expected doubling of the density of integrated circuits on a silicon chip every 18 months or so--to envision the likely effects of information technology on various countries, regions, and cultures. Another conference considered the political, economic, and social consequences already affecting many parts of the world. Subsequent conferences will chart the course of the revolution in greater detail in Latin America, Europe, and Asia. The participants already agree that the information revolution will affect all nations, albeit in different ways.

To identify forms of global governance that might be necessary for the information age, Francis Fukuyama and Caroline Wagner highlighted three models of political and social organization that could complement the nation-state: distributed decisionmaking, citizen councils, and nongovernmental organizations. These models function not as hierarchical systems of control; rather, they involve broader swaths of the body politic in transnational deliberations. This attribute will be critical for any new system of governance to be effective, the researchers conclude.

To suggest an American information strategy for the 21st century, John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt drew inspiration from the prophetic writings of a French soldier, paleontologist, and Jesuit theologian of the early 20th century, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (TAY-yar DUH Shar-DAN). The controversial writings of Teilhard during World War I and the 1920s were censored by the Vatican but published posthumously in the 1950s and 1960s. He asserted that evolution and Christianity, far from being at odds with each other, are in fact part of the same process: the evolution of a benign spiritual force through increasingly complex forms of material life on earth. Teilhard foresaw that human beings would rise to a new evolutionary plane characterized by the global coordination of intellectual, social, and spiritual energies. He called this higher plane the "noosphere" (NEW-oh-sphere), defining it as an all-encompassing realm of the mind (from the Greek noos, or "mind"). Teilhard predicted that this realm would eventually supersede the prior evolutionary realms of the geosphere and the biosphere as the supreme milieu of the spirit on earth. Today, Teilhard is occasionally credited with anticipating the Internet.

The all-encompassing realm of the mind, though intangible by definition, forms the backbone of the American information strategy proposed by Arquilla and Ronfeldt. They advance the notion of "noopolitik" (NEW-oh-poh-li-TEEK) as a new form of statecraft for the information age. As opposed to realpolitik, which often refers to a policy of national expansion across geographic terrain, noopolitik would seek instead to advance national ideas, values, laws, and ethics across the "psychic terrain" of the noosphere that envelops the planet. Noopolitik represents an evolutionary leap in statecraft made possible by the information revolution.

RAND researchers foresee that the information revolution will change not just the way people behave thanks to new technological devices, but, more essentially, the way people understand and organize themselves--socially, culturally, politically, economically, governmentally, militarily, and even spiritually. Similarly, the information revolution will transform the way nations behave and understand their roles in the world. These changes ought to be the most pronounced in the United States, the researchers aver. As the global leader of the information revolution, the United States should begin now to redefine its purpose in the world, to redesign its national institutions, and to update its national strategies in ways that befit the revolution it has wrought.

The Future of the Revolution

The first two conferences organized by RAND to chart the likely course of the information revolution each convened about 40 participants. Most came from the United States. Others came from Australia, Britain, Denmark, France, India, Japan, and Russia. The next three conferences in this series will broaden and deepen RAND's understanding of the worldwide course of the information revolution as it pertains specifically to Latin America, Europe, and the Asia Pacific region.


A visitor tests a wearable, wireless Internet device, called the "Charmed Communicator," on display at the China Internet World 2000 exhibition in Beijing in April. The device can be used for computer games, as a web browser, as an e-mail terminal, or as a replacement for a desktop computer.

So far, the participants have agreed on the basics: Over the next 15-20 years, computing will get faster and cheaper, communications bandwidth (or capacity) will increase enormously, and interesting new devices will emerge. As a result, the industrialized countries could expect to encounter a plethora of new technological phenomena, particularly in five areas:

1. Photonics. Optical transmission lines, amplifiers, and switches will allow a tremendous increase in the bandwidth of packet-switching technology. This will lead to major changes in computer architectures, operating systems, and networking protocols. Many present-day leaders in the computer and communications industries will be threatened with extinction.

2. Universal connectivity. Wireless communications will provide seamless data, voice, and video services to anyone anywhere on earth at any time of the day or night. This will have a huge affect on business practices, international financial institutions, and governments.

3. Ubiquitous computing. Computers will be everywhere: in smart home appliances, smart houses, smart offices, smart buildings, smart cars, and smart highways. Smart appliances, for example, could "talk" to one another and sense the presence of humans. Wearable and implanted computers will give people constant access to information services while mobile.

4. Pervasive sensors. Sensors will be everywhere as well. Wireless sensors will include tiny video cameras, tiny microphones, accelerometers, gyroscopes, Global Positioning System receivers, smell sensors, food sensors, biosensors, and polymer-based sensors. They will provide directions, identify spoiled food, detect diseases, detect natural and synthetic compounds, and assist police and the military with instant feedback on individual or group activities. Privacy issues will continue to mount and will demand solutions.

5. Global information utilities. It will be possible to plug information appliances into wall sockets connected to public information utilities in much the same way as we now plug electrical appliances into sockets connected to electrical utilities. Just as we obtain electricity, gas, water, and telephone services from wires and pipes to our homes, so will we be able to obtain information services.

Today, however, high-speed Internet connections exist almost exclusively between the United States and Europe and between the United States and Asia. There are very few high-speed links to or among developing countries. About half of all Internet users reside in the United States and Canada.

Further disparities between industrialized and developing nations could arise in several areas, including health care, education, and commercial supply-chain management.

In health care, "telemedicine" will allow remote diagnoses, remote monitoring of vital signs, and easy transfer of electronic medical records (all of which will require high degrees of security). Telemedicine will probably widen the gap between rich and poor societies, because only those countries with the requisite infrastructure and bandwidth could exploit the full benefits. Even so, some benefits could accrue to the poor. For example, medical students and doctors in poor countries could get improved information and training over the web. And countries short of doctors could reap huge gains from equipment now being designed by the U.S. military. For example, a "smart stretcher" could transmit detailed information about an injured soldier (or civilian) to remote physicians, who could then instruct a medic at the scene to follow specific procedures.

In education, the greatest benefits will probably go to adults who pursue lifetime learning, specialized training, or postgraduate education through "distance learning." Again, the need for an infrastructure would favor wealthy nations the most, but the opportunity for remote access to superior teachers and educational materials could also benefit people of poor nations.

Supply-chain management refers to the effort by businesses and manufacturers to reduce surplus inventories wherever possible and thus cut costs. New computerized management systems already have led to vast improvements in tracking inventories, reducing overhead costs, and allowing managers to understand intuitively the workings of very complex production systems. These kinds of improvements reduce the advantages that accrue to cheap laborers (those who produce and store surplus inventories) and thus could end the flight of manufacturing to the developing world. This could have profound consequences for the global distribution of income.

The conferees expressed additional misgivings. The information revolution, they suspect, will widen the economic, social, and political disparities within societies as well as among nations. Privacy will be increasingly jeopardized. The spread of U.S. culture could overwhelm other cultures. And nations will pay an increasing price for going their own ways.

But the revolution cannot be stopped, the conferees concluded. For better or worse, it is leading to a future that will be characterized by many interrelated economic, social, and political features:

  • the continuing rise of electronic commerce and the elimination of myriad "middlemen," creating greater efficiencies but also greater possibilities for social exclusion

  • a growing fraction of economic activity performed by "information workers"

  • flatter, less-hierarchical business organizations that place a higher value on social networks and informal communications

  • challenges to the power and authority of the nation-state as a result of many factors, including the increasing porosity of national borders and the simultaneous assemblage of a wide variety of interest groups that operate largely beyond the control of individual nations

  • new fault lines within and between nations, by virtue of the widening gulfs between the educated, wealthy, and "wired" of all nations and the less fortunate of all nations

  • many new winners and many new losers among individuals, groups, nations, and regions.

The Direction of Governance

Of particular concern to the U.S. government, naturally, is how to govern the new technologies--or, in other words, how to control, direct, shape, or regulate their use. In an age of globally networked information systems that could be used for good or ill by any user, it is not yet clear what kinds of governmental decisionmaking structures should or could be put into place. Whereas the industrial revolution generated large-scale technologies (telecommunications, airlines, nuclear energy) whose control required centralized decisionmaking by national authorities, the information revolution has produced global technologies whose control resides largely in the hands of individuals. The obstacles to governing such technologies are tremendous.

In fairness, Fukuyama and Wagner recognize that the new technologies have been hailed for supporting the political values championed by the West. Cheap and ubiquitous phones, fax machines, radios, computers, e-mail, and the Internet have all been saluted for helping to overthrow authoritarian powers throughout the world and spread liberal democracy. Modern communications were crucial in undermining the communist states of East Germany and the Soviet Union as well as the right-wing dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. In the future, the information revolution could help to open other closed societies such as China, whose government has tried to control Internet use for political reasons.

Americans also have selfish reasons for wanting to spread the revolution around the world with few constraints. Americans stand to benefit economically. American companies dominate the global information industry. American media and cultural products, from CNN to Disney to MTV, will be disseminated via the new technological innovations. American media will also foster American values, both political and cultural, as the world becomes more electronically connected. It is natural for Americans to argue for minimal government regulation of information technologies, for that would appear to favor American interests and values around the world.

But the Internet poses real problems for America as well. The Internet has evolved well beyond its original function of sharing information into a global commercial trading system. Electronic commerce has strained international trade agreements, jurisdictional powers over taxation and regulation, and legal safeguards for intellectual property. The borderless nature of electronic commerce has also extended the reach of criminal activity. Money launderers, drug traffickers, hate groups, and pornographers rank among the most innovative users. Terrorists have new tools, too. Not only can terrorists organize across international borders, they can also undermine social order by spreading false or misleading information that may be difficult to counteract.

In fact, the Internet could accelerate the fragmentation of civil society itself. In the middle of the 20th century, the mass media gave Americans a common set of cultural experiences, whether through watching the Ed Sullivan Show or reading Life magazine. All forms of media today, not just the Internet, target highly specialized niche markets, with 500 cable channels on television and tens of thousands of online discussion groups on the Internet. In aggregate, citizens have fewer and fewer common cultural experiences and points of reference, with possible negative implications for their ability to associate and work together as a national political community.

The solution might be to build an international political community, according to Fukuyama and Wagner. They do not propose some kind of world government that would weaken U.S. sovereignty. They do, however, recognize that no single nation can govern the new technologies. To control, shape, and regulate them will require institutions as borderless and decentralized as the technologies themselves. Therefore, the researchers propose that the U.S. government work with other governments, organizations, and individuals to create new institutions of governance, as opposed to government. These institutions will need "buy-in" from a wide range of nations, organizations, and average citizens to be considered legitimate and effective. When technology is in the hands of individuals, the only viable regulatory structure will be one endorsed by those individuals themselves.

New governance mechanisms are needed quickly, Fukuyama and Wagner argue. They weigh the possi-bilities for three existing models of governance: dis-tributed decisionmaking, citizen councils, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). All three models have the ingredients of future success: They are nimble, inclusive, decentralized, and global. All three models also have disadvantages.

Jeff Mallett (left), of Yahoo! Inc., demonstrates the Internet to 10-year-old Juan Martinez (right), 9-year-old Jonathan Bermudez (second from right), and 10-year-old Adrian Solorio, all of Los Angeles, at the Hollenbeck Youth Center in Boyle Heights in July. In back is Todd Wagner, of, who donated computer hardware and training to help the center bridge the "digital divide."

The first model, decentralized decisionmaking, would require many organizations and users to reach consensus on various matters: what technologies to support with research and development money; what technologies need governance; what the norms of use and application should be; and whether, how, and at what level of formality the technologies should be regulated. Although this process of creating common norms would provide a solid foundation for global governance, it often takes a long time to create common norms. And time, unfortunately, is of the essence.

The second approach would be to create citizen councils that would make recommendations to formal governing bodies. For instance, hundreds of citizen councils could be organized across the United States (or around the world) and encouraged to deliberate over the rules and regulations that should govern information technology. Using the formidable networking capacities of the Internet, these councils could share ideas on a series of questions and point toward a governing consensus. A centrally organized group--such as the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the National Science Foundation, or a public-private coalition--could provide the considerable incentive of coordinated action, could give the councils sufficient information with which to deliberate, and could serve as the clearinghouse for opinions and ideas. Citizen councils like this have been used quite effectively in Europe. However, American culture is less homogeneous than the culture of many a European nation. Citizen councils in America would have to represent the greater diversity of the American people as well as simultaneously accommodate the individualistic nature of U.S. culture.

The third approach would be to promote governance of information technologies by international NGOs. In recent years, numerous NGOs have used electronic communications to achieve outcomes otherwise unattainable by sovereign nation-states. Human rights and other activist groups forced the hand of the Mexican government on behalf of the Indians in Chiapas. Greenpeace and other environmental groups forced Shell Oil to change its policies with respect to the North Sea and Nigeria. Other groups induced the sportswear maker Nike to promise compliance with child labor standards. In each case, NGOs changed the behavior either of a government or of a large multinational corporation when state action had been ineffective. NGOs have the capacity to organize quickly and transnationally in ways that avoid the bureaucracy and rigidity of conventional international institutions.

On the other hand, NGOs are ultimately unaccountable to anyone but their own adherents. Unlike a democratically elected legislature that can be turned out of office, NGOs cannot be removed by popular demand. They lack the legitimacy of formal government institutions that operate by popular consent. Moreover, NGOs usually deal with limited issues in limited ways. NGOs have neither the obligation nor the capability to promote the public interest at large.

The Destiny of America

In their call for a new form of statecraft for the information age, Arquilla and Ronfeldt decry the "imbalance" they now see in efforts to craft an American information strategy. A good strategy would balance two opposite poles, they explain. One pole is technological--that of ensuring the safety and security of information infrastructures. The other pole is political or ideational--that of harnessing and disseminating American ideals to attract, influence, and lead others.


A man in local Arabic dress browses the Internet at a café in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in August. Arab rulers have slowly, somewhat reluctantly made the Internet available to their people, attempting to filter out free-wheeling political discussion as well as pornography.

Both poles are important, but the technological concerns have grabbed the bulk of the attention. Meanwhile, the broader sociopolitical objective of sharing ideas has been neglected. It is time for U.S. civilian and military leaders to look beyond the defense of information infrastructures, say Arquilla and Ronfeldt. There is much more at stake in cyberspace than technological vulnerability. There are also unprecedented opportunities. In other words, beyond merely defending against an "electronic Pearl Harbor," America should endeavor to fulfill a new information-age "manifest destiny" of propagating its ideals, values, and ethics around the world.

The original notion of the noosphere, as articulated by Teilhard, was never neutral with respect to values or ethics. He was a priest, after all. In his vision, the higher evolutionary plane of the noosphere would be reached not merely through the coordination of human energies but, more intrinsically, through a devotion to moral and juridical principles. Arquilla and Ronfeldt embrace that idea. They contend that the Internet and other forms of global communication should serve a higher purpose beyond just disseminating information or fueling commerce. Hence, America should harness the new technologies to promote the ideals for which it stands: openness, freedom, democracy, the rule of law, humane behavior, human rights, and a preference for peaceful conflict resolution.

Such an information strategy would be called noopolitik. Unlike realpolitik, which is foreign policy based on raw calculations of power and narrow national interests, noopolitik is foreign policy based on global ideas, values, norms, laws, and ethics. Realpolitik works through the "hard power" of men, missiles, guns, and ships. Noopolitik emphasizes the "soft power" of attraction rather than coercion. Realpolitik asserts that might makes right; noopolitik, that right makes might. Realpolitik tends to be amoral if not immoral. Noopolitik succeeds only by upholding shared principles.

There are immense implications for the U.S. military. To simultaneously disseminate and defend American ideals, the military would need plenty of new capabilities to deal with both friends and foes. On the one hand, the military would need globally interconnected information systems that allow conditional sharing of information with semitrusted allies. On the other hand, the military would need new organizational designs and doctrines for using information-age "swarming" strategies against terrorists, authoritarian regimes, or other adversaries. These swarming strategies would entail striking at foes from many directions simultaneously--sometimes with heat-seeking missiles and other smart munitions, sometimes with truth-seeking teams of "special media forces" armed with the weapons of the media rather than traditional military weapons. The media forces would be dispatched into conflict zones to help settle disputes through the discovery and dissemination of accurate information.

For the time being, the leading practitioners of noopolitik are neither nation-states nor their militaries but, as indicated above, NGOs. They are already utilizing information technologies to promote a global civil society. Prime examples include the Nobel prize-winning campaign to ban land mines; the Greenpeace-led campaign against French nuclear testing in the South Pacific; the transnational defense of Zapatista insurgents in Mexico; and the Internet-based efforts by Burmese and Chinese dissidents, with support from NGOs based in the United States, to press for human rights and political reforms. Such efforts suggest that old tenets of "peace through strength" are yielding to new tenets of "peace through knowledge."

An American information strategy of noopolitik would build on the successes of NGOs. Once again, the researchers do not call for some kind of overarching global government. Rather, they explain that the most effective strategy for the U.S. government would be to form a cooperative network with allied governments and NGOs in pursuit of common global missions. At the same time, an American information strategy for the future could not be confined strictly to American interests and institutions. The inherently global nature of modern information and networking would undermine such a narrow strategy. National interests would still play a role, but they would need to be recast in universal terms.

For example, U.S. foreign policy might face widespread global opposition. In this case, U.S. policy itself might need to be reconsidered. This sort of problem has recently occurred. The United States has refused to join more than 100 countries in signing a treaty to ban land mines, mainly because of the U.S. military's reliance on land mines on the Korean peninsula. Yet the United States could reconsider its reliance on land mines, either by shifting to tactics that have little use for land mines or by developing mobile mines that travel with ground troops. Either solution would resolve the impasse, and both could lead to greater U.S. military effectiveness.

There are certainly risks in pursuing a strategy that could place limits on American freedom of action. A vibrant, global civil society built on an interconnected network of NGOs and nation-states might one day curtail the autonomous exercise of American power. Yet if free flows of information do indeed foster democracy and open markets, the overall benefits of such a strategy are likely to exceed the liabilities. In some ways, such a strategy resembles the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Western Europe and Japan after World War II. The United States used its power to strengthen others against a communist threat, even to the point of creating new economic giants that could rival America's own market power. Similarly, Arquilla and Ronfeldt believe that America stands to benefit, on balance, from the emergence of the noosphere and the pursuit of noopolitik.

At the beginning of this strategy, American hegemony might even be the necessary precondition to consolidate the global noosphere. Much as classic theories of trade openness depend on a benign hegemon to keep markets open and to provide the "public goods" (like freedom of the seas) that make trade possible, a benevolent hegemon may now be required to coordinate a network of NGOs and nation-states as the nucleus of a global civil society. At the end of this strategy, however, American hegemony might indeed fade. But here is the consolation: America would transcend itself on behalf of a greater global good. American ideals, with modest refinements, would write the constitution of a global civil society, even as the American state itself would lose its primacy. That would be a fitting legacy of the primacy of American ideals.

Related Reading

The Emergence of Noopolitik: Toward an American Information Strategy, John Arquilla, David Ronfeldt, RAND/MR-1033-OSD, 1999, 102 pp., ISBN 0-8330-2698-4, $15.00.

The Global Course of the Information Revolution: Political, Economic, and Social Consequences--Proceedings of an International Conference, Richard O. Hundley, Robert H. Anderson, Tora K. Bikson, James A. Dewar, Jerrold Green, Martin Libicki, C. Richard Neu, RAND/CF-154-NIC, 2000, 142 pp., ISBN 0-8330-2850-2, $9.00.

The Global Course of the Information Revolution: Technological Trends--Proceedings of an International Conference, Robert H. Anderson, Philip S. Anton, Steven C. Bankes, Tora K. Bikson, Jonathan Caulkins, Peter J. Denning, James A. Dewar, Richard O. Hundley, C. Richard Neu, RAND/CF-157-NIC, 2000, 127 pp., ISBN 0-8330-2906-1, $9.00.

Information and Biological Revolutions: Global Governance Challenges--Summary of a Study Group, Francis Fukuyama, Caroline S. Wagner, RAND/MR-1139-DARPA, 2000, 140 pp., ISBN 0-8330-2807-3, $15.00.

Swarming and the Future of Conflict, John Arquilla, David Ronfeldt, RAND/DB-311-OSD, 2000, 107 pp., ISBN 0-8330-2855-5, $18.00.