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Author: Harlan Cleveland
Title: The Global Century
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
November 2000

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Source: The Global Century
Harlan Cleveland

vol. 3, no. 3, November 2000
Article Type: Article
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The Global Century

Harlan Cleveland

"The future belongs to everyone!" At the end of a hard century, the politician's rhetoric sounds with a thud in a world ever more divided between rich and poor. But what if the words are true? Transformations in information networks, computers and biotechnology, human ethics, ecology and equity are movements now sweeping the globe, colliding with older, authoritarian systems. With no one expressly in charge, defining the future requires a diviner with true global reach. Dr. Harlan Cleveland, the keynote speaker at the American Association for History and Computing in April 2000, is just such a person. As President of the World Academy of Art and Science, Former United Nations Relief Manager, Marshall Plan Official, Assistant US Secretary of State, Ambassador to NATO, President of the University of Hawaii, Dr. Cleveland is a world citizen.
Jere Jackson
President, AAHC 1999-2000

I. The Spread of Knowledge

Philosophy learned from examples"

I have to tell you right away that as an avid consumer of history, I stand in awe of those who produce it. Oscar Wilde spoke for me when he said that "Anyone can make history. Only a great man can write it." (If he had read Barbara Tuchman, I'm sure he would have included women in that famous quote.)

I'm also impressed that you are historians especially interested in the impacts and implications of information technology. If "the historian is a prophet in reverse," as another familiar quotation suggests, then you have the advantage over other historians – because, in many ways I will shortly suggest, the "information revolution" is the most pervasive and powerful force in current history as we enter the Global Century.

And if "history is philosophy learned from examples," as Thucydides is supposed to have said, then perhaps what I say to you will be history, sort of. For I propose to sprinkle before you a confetti of examples from the early years of this Information Revolution we've just been through, and suggest a few of the fundamental changes in our thinking, which is to say our philosophy, that this history-making transformation makes both possible and necessary.

II. A Look Around

On this first day of the rest of our lives, it may be useful to raise our periscopes for a 360-degree look around. My sweep of the horizon shows ten worldwide revolutions transforming our world. They are concurrent, but not parallel – rather, they are intermixed, interwoven, interactive.



The sudden increase in explosive power has clamped a lid on the scale of warfare – a first in human history. The invention of weapons too big to use converted much of big-power military strategy into an expensive information game. But it also leaves smaller wars in scattered places as the archetypical conundrum of "global security" in the 21st century.


Biotechnology, including the deciphering of information in living genes, presents humankind with a vast range of new ethical choices and political puzzles. Human cloning, which currently captures the headlines, is only one of them. In all sorts of ways, we – homo we hope sapiens — are becoming increasingly responsible for our own evolution.


Computers, serving as prosthetic extensions of our brainpower, are replacing much of the repetitious drudgery people have always had to endure. They bring in their train new puzzles about the future of "work." But the elimination of drudgery can't be bad news for the generations to come.?


Linking fast computers with more reliable telecommunications enables us to model and simulate vast systems such as the global atmosphere, the human genome – and nuclear fallout from megaton explosions. This is sensitizing us to the consequences of what we the people are doing to our natural environment – and could inadvertently do to ourselves.


The widening spread of knowledge is creating a "skill revolution" that provides so many more people with the attributes and ambitions of leadership as to create a fundamental change in the technology of organization: pyramids and command-and-control are on their way out, consultation and consensus are increasingly "in."

These five transformations are driven quite directly by scientific discovery and technological innovation. The other five are facilitated, even intensified, by science and technology. But they are driven by universal aspirations of the human spirit – by a widespread sense of entitlement to "enough" (the fulfillment of basic human needs), and beyond that by equally basic human desires for a sense of achievement, justice, solidarity, and participation.


The idea of human rights for everyone has become the world's first truly universal idea-system. It has come to mean rights not only for women, captured soldiers, and political prisoners, but also for children and the aging, for racial and ethnic minorities, for immigrants and refugees, and for all manner of people once considered "untouchables." Matching universal human rights with universal human responsibilities, however, has been left to be worked out in the 21st century.


A global fairness revolution is spreading as the spread of knowledge shows the disadvantaged in every society what they are missing – and is providing them with new means of communication to express their rising resentments and help them "overcome."


Fierce loyalties to cultural identity with less-than-global communities – bonded by nationhood, ethnicity, race, religion, ideology, and even occupation – are colliding everywhere with the homogenizing cultures of "modernization."


An emerging ethic of ecology is producing a revolution in human self-control – based not on "limits to growth" but on limits to thoughtlessness, unfairness, and conflict. The result, in many domains, is a "growth of limits."


Openness, market incentives, and the practice of pluralism are currently on display in some of the unlikeliest places. Authoritarian and totalitarian systems are simply unable to compete with looser systems that "go with the flow" in the global flood of knowledge.

III. Symbols, not things

These global tides and currents are all related to each other. Indeed, modern biologists and ecologists have joined a long list of spiritual prophets, inspired poets, and secular philosophers – and some historians, too — in insisting that everything is related to everything else, that human beings are all somehow connected to one another – and that, in consequence, each of us has to try and think hard about "the situation as a whole."

The striking thing about these global windshifts is the extent to which they all are rooted in the historically sudden spread of knowledge – which in turn is the consequence of upheavals and opportunities created by the marriage of computers and telecommunications during the last fifth of the 20th century.

Peering now into the 21st century, we can't know just what will happen, or when. But we already know something more important: why it will happen.

Information – symbols, not things – will be playing the lead role in world history that physical labor, stone, bronze, land, minerals, metals, and energy once played. We'll have to burn into our consciousness how very different information is from all its predecessors as civilization's dominant resource.

Information expands as it's used – no "limits to growth" around here.It is readily transportable, at close to the speed of light. Information leaks so easily that it's much harder to hide and to hoard than tangible resources were. The spread of knowledge empowers the many, by eroding the influence that once empowered the few who were "in the know." Information cannot be owned, only its delivery service can. And giving or selling information don't give rise to "exchange" transactions; they are acts of sharing.

These six simple, pregnant propositions, as they sink in around the world and down the generations, should help us sort out some of the big conundrums that puzzle us as we turn the corner to a new millennium. I'll take, as examples, just four of them.

IV. Intellectual property: an oxymoron

My first example: If information cannot really be "owned," then the whole idea of "intellectual property" is clearly an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. It is, of course, quite possible to encourage and reward creativity – it happens all the time in universities. But that doesn't require gluing it to the notion of personal property rights.

Rather than digging in to defend patent and copyright law, those crumbling ramparts of information-as-property, we will be wise, early in the twenty-first century, to invent, elaborate, and project a more viable concept that leaves plenty of room for incentives for creativity , yet doesn't rest on "ownership of information" as its moral, legal, economic, and philosophical basis.

And the footings on which "trade secrecy" and government classification systems rest are just as vulnerable as patent and copyright law to the predictable tornadoes of change. They also deserve a skeptical new look early in the Global Century.

V. The dwindling of distance

My second example starts with the changing relevance of distance.

Down through history "community" has mostly meant the ties among people who lived or worked nearby. Even where a community's "roots" were rooted in a common religion or ethnic identity, people identified most closely with the like-minded who were geographically close at hand. But now and in the future, the comparative ease of travel and communication makes it much easier for "community" to mean people with similar interests and motivations working together in "virtual teams" wherever they are living, working – or even traveling.

It is certainly premature, but it's no longer laughable, to speak of "the end of geography." My life has been focused on international affairs, and I would have to be blind not to have noticed that geographically "regional" bodies have turned out to be the least effective and most underemployed of the many kinds of international organizations invented during the past fifty-five years. (The European Union may yet prove to be an exception to this broad-brush generalization; but even "Europe" hasn't yet come together enough to project its values worldwide in the 21st century.)

With electronics, satellites, and fast computers at our command, we have all watched the dwindling relevance of distance in our intellectual pursuits. But we've also noticed that delivering facts and ideas – which can be done quite efficiently from a distance — is only half of teaching-learning dynamics. The other half is "getting to know you, getting to know all about you" – the magic, human, social part of education.

In the 1980s, while we were inventing one of the nation's first Leadership programs at the University of Minnesota, I also served as a faculty member of the Western Behavioral Studies Institute's ambitious executive leadership program. When in 1980 I was first asked to lead some of their seminars-by-computer-conference, that was my first hands-on experience with a personal computer. I couldn't imagine that I – or anyone – could conduct an informal conversation by written comments, typed, proof-read, then transmitted into the void, to be answered in a day or two by some disembodied entity in equally polished, equally stilted prose.

But WBSI had figured out, very early, that it was essential to gather our executives – from places as distant from each other as Hawaii and Abu Dhabi – in face-to-face meetings at least twice a year, for a week of schmoozing together in La Jolla, California. Having gotten to know each other, we somehow felt quite comfortable conversing, even kidding or insulting each other on-line, during our six months apart before our next gathering in La Jolla. There was, indeed, a fresh intellectual challenge in composing ironic on-line prose that didn't depend for its impact on those sophomoric graphic smiles that deface too many messages on the Internet.

Computer-assisted communication is not a substitute for face-to-face contact; but the converse is equally true. Once I get to know you pretty well, up close and personal, I really don't need to see your face every time we talk on the phone or exchange messages by e-mail. What's clear is that combining up-close and distance learning enhances the educational experience, beyond what's possible with either mode alone.

VI. The twilight of hierarchy

Yet another example, a third, of these pervasive impacts of what the French call "the informatization of society," is the changing seismology of organization and leadership. The direction of change is now obvious: everywhere, a shift from top-down "vertical" relationships toward "horizontal," consensual, collaborative modes of getting people together to make something different happen.

This major historical fault-line is also, very clearly, a consequence of the spread of information – symbols, not things – as the newly dominant resource. The more people are "in the know," empowered by ready access to the enormous pool of knowledge available through the Internet and global radio and television, the more likely they are to think they have something relevant to say – and to insist on being heard.

It was in the nature of things that the few had access to key resources and the many did not: there never seemed to be enough to go around. The inherent characteristics of physical resources (the natural ones and those created by human ingenuity) made possible – perhaps even necessary — the development of hierarchies of power based on control (of new weapons, of transport vehicles, of trade routes, or markets, and even of knowledge back when secrets could be secure), hierarchies of influence based on secrecy, hierarchies of class based on ownership, hierarchies of privilege based on early access to particular pieces of land or especially valuable resources, and hierarchies of politics based on geography.

Each of these five bases for hierarchy and discrimination has been crumbling in the waning years of the twentieth century. The old means of control are of dwindling efficacy. Secrets are harder and harder to keep (as the CIA and the White House relearn every couple of weeks). And ownership, early arrival, and geography are of declining importance in accessing, remembering, analyzing, and using the knowledge and wisdom that are the really valuable legal tender of our time.

The twilight of hierarchy opens up a fast-growing need for people who can and will take the lead — and requires very different attitudes and strategies for those who do opt to point the way. In modern societies many organizations still look, from a distance, like pyramids; but both their internal processes and their external relations feature much less order-giving, much more consultation and consensus. (Consensusis not the same as "unanimous consent." When I was practicing diplomacy at the UN and in NATO, I found helpful this definition of the word consensus: the acquiescence of those who care [about a particular decision], supported by the apathy of those who don't.)

Many specialized professionals now find themselves drawn to general leadership. They would do well to remember what Peter Drucker wrote two decades ago about that transition: the professional "does not cease to be a 'professional'; he must not cease to be one. But he acquires an additional dimension of understanding, additional vision, and the sense of responsibility for the survival and importance of the whole that distinguishes the manager from the subordinate and the citizen from the subject." ?

The complexities of modern life, and the interconnectedness of everything to everything else, now means that in our communities, our nations, and our world, nobody can possibly know enough to be in general charge of anything important or interesting. This state of affairs is becoming more apparent with each passing year. It may be why, on more and more policy issues, the "followers" – especially university students and educated adults — so often come up with relevant policy judgments while their established "leaders" are still making up their minds.

VII. The prospects for fairness

Let's look, a little more in depth, at one more example – my fourth — of the fundamental rethinking that "the informatization of society" seems to require in every corner of our civilization.

A doleful legacy of the twentieth century is the still-growing gap between rich and poor – among countries and inside countries. As information – abundant, shareable, instantly accessible – now becomes the world's dominant resource, what does that do to the prospects for fairness??

Surely it means that people who get educated to handle information, who hone their analytical and intuitive powers, who learn how to achieve access to information – and, even more important, how to select what they need from the information overload — will likely be better off and more fairly treated than those who do not.

In the industrial era, poverty was explained and justified by shortages of things: there just weren't enough minerals, food, fiber, and manufactures to go around. Looked at this way, the resource shortages were merely aggravated by the propensity of the poor to have babies.

In the era just ahead of us, physical resources are elbowed from center stage by information, the resource that is hardest for the rich and powerful to hide or to hoard. Each of the babies, poor or not, is born with a brain. The collective capacity of all the brains in each society to convert information into knowledge and wisdom is the measure of that society's potential. Consider this measuring rod as you think about China's role – and India's, too — in the 21st century.

But there's a catch: Whether the informatization of the globe will actually mean a fairer shake for those who in earlier times have been the victims of discrimination depends mostly on what they do from now on.

Most of the fairness achieved in world history has not been the consequence of charity, good-heartedness, or noblesse oblige on the part of those who already possessed riches and power. Always in history, it seems, fairness has been granted, legislated, or seized when there was no alternative. And usually the reason there was no alternative was that the "downs" were determined – or at least perceived by the "ups" to be determined – to cast off their shackles and take the law into their own hands.

As information leaks around the world, very large numbers of people are now learning, often instantly, about what goes on elsewhere – good things happening in places near and far that could happen to them if their leaders were wiser and more flexible, and bad things happening to other people which could fall out on them if they don't watch out.

During the revolutions of 1989-91 that pulled the fraying rugs from under the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe, then swept into history the Soviet Union itself, the impatient crowds in the big public squares were moved not by distant visions of Utopia but by spreading information about neighbors in Western Europe who were obviously getting more goods and services, more fairness in their distribution, and firmer guarantees of human rights than their own bosses and planners seemed able to deliver.

The good news was that information leaked – and that sharing has long been the natural mode of scientific and cultural communication. The changing information environment was bound to undermine the knowledge monopolies that totalitarian governments had converted into monopolies of power.

VIII. "The Future is an Ethical Category"

Those cascading revolutions a decade ago were dramatic in their details and unpredicted in their timing. But they were no surprise to those who had noticed the way the eastward information flow – by television, radio, facsimile, and telephone – were breeding people's intolerance of longtime leaders who simply couldn't liberalize their policies fast enough to escape the people's wrath.

Around the world outside of Europe, the intensified spread of information was also enhancing the people's political aspirations on every continent – not so much selling them on Western concepts of freedom and democracy as simply persuading them, by example, that they deserved a say in policies that bore on their own lives and destinies.

Shortly before he died at the end of 1989, the Indonesian philosopher Soedjatmoko (perhaps the wisest wise man I have been privileged to count as a personal friend) spoke of the need for a political philosophy that reconciles freedom for the individual and fairness for the individual. Some human societies meld fairness with freedom better than others do. But none has yet met his prophetic standard. In dancing around this dilemma, he thought, we cannot expect much help from "the older religions, ethical systems, and philosophies," because today's options, opened by the information revolution, didn't exist when they were developed.

We will therefore have to learn, said Soedjatmoko, "to enhance our capacity for moral reasoning, to deal with problems" for which "we cannot find analogies in older, petrified systems of wisdom." Unless we do that, we will be stuck with "obsolete, fossilized social and political structures." Then we would be destined "to work hard for our own demise . . . in a world of very rapid change without fixed road signs."

The learners in every society are starting to fashion their own road signs – some adapted from older systems of wisdom, some the result of new intellectual or spiritual inspiration. "The future is an ethical category," Soedjatmoko was fond of saying, "because we choose it ourselves."

IX. A Global Fairness Revolution

The more affluent countries – and the more affluent people in every country – thus face a global fairness revolution, multiplying the demands on a world economic system that still knows how to cut into its benefits only a minority of humankind.

Both among and within the "nation-states" of the twenty-first century, the old French warning retains its relevance: Entre le fort et le faible, c'est la liberté qui opprime et et la loi qui affranchit. (In relations between the strong and the weak, it's freedom that oppresses and law that liberates.) But if law is too rigid and universal, as Aristotle had already figured out two and a half millennia ago, the urge for equity or fairness will arise to correct the law. Part of the stew of resentments seems always to be the complaint every child learns to make from infancy: "it isn't fair."

The key that unlocks "growth with fairness," in the United States and elsewhere in the global information society, is widespread access to relevant education.

More than any one factor, it was that forward-looking early nineteenth-century decision to mandate free public education for every young U.S. resident that enabled the American people to pull themselves out of "underdevelopment." Another wise educational policy, the Morrill Act of 1862, used federal land grants to set up university-based agricultural research stations and build a county-by-county extension service to deliver the resulting science directly to farmers. That made possible those "amber waves of grain," celebrated in our loveliest national song, that are still today a centerpiece of the world food market.

Around the horizon of the developing world — in Asia, Africa, and Latin America — the close connection between education and equitable development is now crystal clear: The poor can get rich by brainwork.

The Japanese amply illustrated this theorem of wealth creation from the earliest dawn of the information era. Two of the most dramatic demonstrations in my lifetime have been India's Green Revolution in the 1970s, a public-sector initiative – and the private-sector software surge in the 1990s that has made India a global player in the world's most phenomenal new industry.

Also in my own lifetime, the hustling people of South Korea, empowered and emboldened by a national policy of universal education dating only from 1950, have become the newest members of the OECD, the "rich countries" club. During the same half century, Taiwan, Singapore, and Israel have in their differing fashions demonstrated the close connections between brainwork and prosperity. Their economies have not only grown faster than those in other developing countries, but the benefits of that growth have been spread more fairly among their own people than in developing countries that are "favored" (as they are not) by endowments of oil or hard minerals or good soil or moderate climate.

Indeed, the growing importance of brainwork has to be good news for every country less endowed with geological riches and arable farmland than were the early arrivers of the industrial age. Around the developing world, the striking paradox is that the most successful countries are precisely those not blessed with wealth-creating natural resources.

Nor does this mean they have had to swallow Western culture whole along with the industrial, agricultural, and information technologies they import, improve, then export. The Japanese, after more than a century of modernization, are still strikingly Japanese. The South Koreans, after half a century of intensive Western exposure, are still strikingly Korean. The Chinese of Singapore have managed to become "modern" without becoming more than superficially "Western."

By contrast, in the countries whose people have been kept in ignorance (by colonial policies, or their own leaders' mismanagement, or first one and then the other), it hardly seems to matter what riches lie in the space they occupy. Most of their citizens become peasants of the information society – along with the dropouts in the postindustrial world. The physical riches get siphoned off to benefit the educated folk huddling in the affluent sections of their central cities, and to enrich the information-wise foreigners who "come to do good and do well."

X. No excuses

To chart the potentials of the global information revolution is not to fulfill them. The predictable trends in information technology will make it possible to organize as a commons most of the world's most useful information, serving it up to those on every continent who take the trouble and make the effort to convert it into usable knowledge and practical wisdom.

"Upon this point a page of history is worth a volume of logic." I can't take credit for that sentence; it was written by Oliver Wendell Holmes in a 1921 legal opinion. ?But because a future is verified by history doesn't mean that it will happen. It only helps me leave you with two solid predictions about the coming millennium.

In the rapidly changing information environment, there will be much less excuse than in the past for depriving whole populations of the benefits of development that could benefit the many, not just the few.

There will also be less excuse than in any previous time for the leaders of the disadvantaged to blame their condition on the world's barons and bosses, when the accessible information to create their own knowledge and wisdom is already floating out there in cyberspace.

You would expect me to conclude with some historian's wisdom, and I don't want to disappoint you. One of my favorite historians is Samuel Eliot Morison, who wrote compellingly of marine explorations and battles at sea. About the origins of America, he wrote:

America was discovered accidentally by a great seaman who was looking for something else; when discovered it was not wanted; and most of the exploration for the next fifty years was done in the hope of getting through or around it. America was named after a man who discovered no part of the New World. History is like that, very chancy.

Our future, in a world where information is the dominant resource, is also very chancy. But if enough of us take seriously the nature of this abundant, transportable, leaky, empowering, non-proprietary, sharing resource, the Global Century can be a better time for far more people than ever before. Let's try to make it come out that way.

Harlan Cleveland, political scientist and public executive, is President Emeritus of the World Academy of Art and Science. He has served as a UN relief administrator in Italy and China, a Marshall Plan executive, a magazine editor and publisher, Assistant Secretary of State, U.S. Ambassador to NATO, twice an academic dean and once a university president. He is author or coauthor of a dozen books on executive leadership and international affairs.