The Power That Divides Computers Have Broken Up the Old Pyramids

Donald R. Morris

November 26, 1990|By Donald R. Morris

HOUSTON — Houston. THE RECENT budget imbroglio cost the Oval Office, the Senate and the House dearly; the electorate -- weeks before elections -- was put off by an unseemly squabble in which no one seemed to know what he wanted and the participants continuously shifted ground. The government, in fact, came perilously close to breaking down and while the budget season has always been noted for partisan fireworks, nothing quite like this volcanic upheaval had eventuated before.

The cause of this wretched spectacle may be buried somewhere in the pages of a remarkable book by Alvin Toffler -- ''Power Shift'' -- continuing the explorations of a world to come he started in ''Future Shock'' and ''The Third Wave.''

Mr. Toffler covers extensive ground, analyzing the elements of power and pointing out that the nature of power, its acquisition and its utilization, have shifted profoundly. Until recent years, the world consisted of discrete nation-states with relatively orderly social, political and economic institutions. Power and wealth went with size; industrial strength rested on corporations which manufactured -- in lengthy, stable production runs -- basic models of whatever was needed.

Labor -- blue- and white-collar alike -- was confined to cubicles, with tightly controlled, regulated functions. The cubicles clustered on channels, or corridors, the province of managers, whose power derived from information -- knowledge of what was happening in the cubicles. Managers in turn fed the information to those who controlled the enterprise, wrote the regulations and made the decisions.

This pattern has broken down -- thanks, as much as anything else, to computers. The cubicles, networked, now know what is happening in all the other cubicles; they are frequently better informed than the managers in the channels, thus eroding their power base, and they are often in a better position to devise new regulations and make decisions than the leaders -- who, again thanks to computers, can now touch base directly with the cubicles. The pattern of power is now a mosaic.

Small, fast-acting firms can now secure large amounts of capital, for the nature of ''money'' has changed and funds can be electronically transferred in an instant. They can launch new enterprises, cutting across national borders, and exploit micromarkets with tailored, short-production-run goods, while corporations organized on the old lines flounder.

Computers crunch away at the bar-code data left by a supermarket customer, with more to crunch on if a credit card was used; breakfast cereals, cigarettes and soft drinks are repackaged, launched or withdrawn to match shifting markets.

Henry Ford built 15 million Model Ts in 20 years, on one assembly line, without ''market research'' and changing nothing, not even the color. Today, market research pins down who wants what; Ford's single market -- people who want a good, cheap car -- has become a mosaic of micro-markets; production runs are short and the instant one micro-market is saturated the product is retailored for the next one.

Economics can no longer be confined to, or controlled by, a nation-state -- the components of an automobile may come from five nations, to be assembled in a sixth and sold in a score of others. Political structures and processes, designed to cope with a vanished world, are under increasing, agonizing tensions.

NTC We have a democracy, with a legislative branch of 435 representatives, each with a constituency of about 570,000 citizens. Representatives vote what their constituencies want; if they don't, they're out. The constituencies were relatively easy to read; on basic issues, they leaned one way or the other, with simple labels; rural or urban, young or old, white-or blue-collar, liberal or conservative, rich or poor, black, white or Hispanic. There might be mixed, emotional signals on sporadic issues, but constituencies changed slowly and few representatives were ever in much doubt what their voters wanted.

But this has changed as well; constituencies are now a mosaic of micro-interests, almost impossible to read. Entire ranges of issues, once regarded as peripheral -- abortion, Medicare, gay rights, the environment, narcotics, paroles -- split the old constituencies and form new mosaics, for which the old labels, the handles government used to determine what was wanted, are no longer applicable.

The budget process disintegrated because the elected representatives -- the president, senators and representatives alike -- caught no clear signals on what their constituencies wanted. There was simply a cacophony of signals, all loud, clear and contradictory, from which no useful guidelines could be extracted.

Until the new mosaics find their voices and the representational system is tailored to fit those voices, there will be more national squabbling. We may well be moving into a world the Founding Fathers had not foreseen, where the orderly process of government they devised, replete with checks and balances, will no longer function, as it has these two centuries and more. It has survived all manner of historical shock; we are now encountering future shock, which has already set all our social and economic institutions on edge.

Our political institutions may be next.

Donald Morris is a retired naval officer and author.

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