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  • Technology and Freedom
  • Joshua Muravchik (bio)
Power, the Press and the Technology of Freedom: The Coming Age of ISDN by Leonard R. Sussman. Freedom House, 1989. 496 pp.

One of the single most valuable resources in the study of international politics is the annual survey of freedom published by Freedom House in New York. It allows discussions of democracy and human rights in world politics to be anchored in a base of data that is rigorous, comparative, and as objective as humanly possible. Now, Leonard Sussman, who served for 21 years as the executive director of Freedom House, has brought us a cognate data base—a world survey of press freedom. Consisting of discursive sketches of the relations between the media and the government in 88 countries—with details about censorship, intimidation, and subornation—this survey will provide a useful referent, especially if it is periodically updated. (The current survey was conducted in 1987 and 1988.)

It surprised and interested me to learn that despite its civil war and rampant political violence, Peru enjoys more press freedom than Italy; and that the military dictatorship in Nigeria allows more press freedom than the democratically elected government of Guatemala. Unfortunately, the survey covers only half the number of countries included in Freedom House's annual surveys of freedom. And in lieu of the latter's handy (albeit necessarily simplifying) numerical scale of freedom, Sussman offers only a visual bar-graph representation, without numeration, of each country's degree of press freedom.

Sussman's survey forms part of a book that also contains a variety of other elements. A separate survey, for instance, is devoted to the largely [End Page 128] tautological revelation that, on the whole, there is more press freedom in free countries than in unfree ones. There is also an extended essay (from which the book derives its title) on future developments in information and communications technology and their likely political impact. For good measure, the author has thrown in miscellaneous essays on such topics as censorship, the fallacy of moral equivalency between the Soviet Union and the United States, and the testy relations between Ronald Reagan and the news media. Sussman is a man with some interesting things to say, but they are not best delivered all lumped together.

The most important of these essays is Sussman's argument about technology and politics: "The Coming Age of ISDN." "ISDN," we learn, stands for "integrated systems of digital networks." In this age, all the world's data bases, as well as its various channels of audiovisual communication, will be instantly accessible to every human through a personal computer and telephone hook-up in his home, neighborhood, or workplace:

[ISDN] is the ultimate network. It is global in scope. It is virtually all-inclusive. On line would be news from everywhere . . . [including] instantaneous monetary, banking and business news . . . data flows carrying new messages as well as archival material; myriad encyclopedic information; and libraries of information on the natural sciences, social sciences, literature, history, and "practical" guides . . . .

Through ISDN, two network users may not only speak to one another and see themselves as they converse, but exchange video pictures and text while editing them on the same screen. Together or separately they can call up today's news or century-old history, program a telephone to take or refuse calls or bills, receive a burglary warning from a distant point, market, settle accounts, make travel reservations, or pursue other activities.

Much in this image is easy enough to extrapolate from current technology. Indeed anyone possessing a computer, a modem, some interactive software, and an up-to-date telephone can do today most of the things that Sussman describes. Perhaps technological and economic developments in the coming years will make it possible to overcome present obstacles to "interfacing" between different computers and different software. It seems less likely, however, that mankind will make enough economic progress to allow most citizens of the poorer countries to be included in the loop. Accordingly, in his discussion of the "ISDN age," Sussman sometimes slides from prediction to entreaty, appealing for "massive assistance. . to Third World communications and information systems." He goes so far as to suggest...


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pp. 128-131
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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