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Global Villager

 THE TWILIGHT OF SOVEREIGNTYBy Walter B. VVriston, Charles Scribner & Sons, 208 pp., $25.Is it fair even to hope for …



By Walter B. VVriston, Charles Scribner & Sons, 208 pp., $25.

Is it fair even to hope for originality in yet another book about the Information Revolution? In “The Twilight of Sovereignty” Walter Wriston embarks on ground well-trodden by other authors. Whether technophile or technophobe, we notch a significant victory if we manage to suppress that yawn of familiarity. So, does Wriston surprise us? Remarkably, he succeeds on two levels. The wealth of novel research contained in the book is mirrored by some profound and original insights.

First, the research. The cognoscenti of this genre, of course, know the automatic telephone exchange was invented by Strowger, a Midwestern undertaker who kept losing business because the local telephone operator was his main competitor’s sister. Furthermore, by now it is mere country club banter that if the automobile industry had advanced at the same pace as the computer industry, today’s cars would hold 600 people, travel at 5,500 mph, and get 2,600 miles to the gallon. But did you know that 50 percent of all U.S. imports and exports are transacted between subsidiaries of the same international parent group?

The book raises some other interesing questions. Is it really an export if a Coca-Cola plant in Chicago sells to Coca-Cola in Canada, or an import if Toshiba in Tokyo exports to Toshiba in Texas? Or suppose Wriston transmits a manuscript by modem to Taiwan for printing, binding, and re-export to the U.S., where his royalties are locally collected and paid? Is that a net export from Taiwan or from the U.S.? And do the national trade accounts have the sophistication to detect the difference? Does it matter?

Was it for this reason that in 1991, the Office of Management and Budget estimated the federal deficit at $63 billion, while the Congressional Budget Office arrived at a figure of $138 billion instead? Or was that just politics?

Politics itself is what makes this book about information different. Wriston says to us: “Look, you don’t run your international corporation solely by geographical profit center anymore; you run it by product-line SBU, by customer segment, and so on. Doesn’t the same analysis apply to whole countries? The information revolution has caused the real power blocks to shift away from classical national frontiers, and if you fail to understand this, you’re simply out of the game.” Add to this some entertaining anecdotal detail of Wriston’s time, not only at Citicorp but also in signals intelligence in the Philippines and elsewhere, and you have a thought-provoking book that rattles the cage around our cozy nationalistic notions.

Could he have done better? Well, there is not much here to help the CEO who finds it difficult to understand an electric toaster, let alone a computer, and the book is better at raising questions than supplying answers. But it sheds fresh light on old issues, and it forces us to think. The separation of church and state is something to which we have become acclimated over the last few hundred years. But the separation of power and state is a new phenomenon. The authority of any government over a transnational enterprise is by definition curtailed: The question is, therefore, in what uneasy state of quasi-regulation do today’s international businesses exist? California‘s attempt to tax the global profits of enterprises with significant presence in the state is just one example of how complex this whole area has become.

When forced to think in this way, we are led to the conclusion that those who can go with the flow of this new transnationalism have access to a leverage that simply bypasses our earlier notions of country-by-country trade. The global matrix has become the reality; the status of each country is being reduced to that of a reporting dotted line. The immediate future of Europe revolves around this notion of the pragmatic (as opposed to legitimate) purview of the state in an era of ceaseless international flow of information and money.

Absent from the book is Bittlestone’s Paradigm of National Delusion: It takes 50 years for any nation to realize it’s no longer top dog. But all credit to Wriston: The concept came to me while reading “The Twilight of Sovereignty.” Meanwhile, I’m doing my bit for Britain‘s invisible and undetectable sovereignty by transmitting this review electronically from London to New York, just in time to catch CE’s deadline.

Robert Bittlestone-CE’s contributing technology editor-is chief executive and managing director of Metapraxis, a consulting firm specializing in executive information systems.

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