The Death of Distance: How the Communications Revolution is Changing Our Lives
By Frances Cairncross
Harvard Business School Press
317 pp., $16.95
In the 23 minutes before author Frances Cairncross met with Shimon Peres last month in Tel Aviv, she managed to discuss human capital, J.R.R. Tolkien, bird conservation, fiber optics, 19th-century architecture and loftier issues such as world peace.
These points could all fall within the "gospel of economics" delivered in her The New York Times bestselling book, The Death of Distance.
The book bridges the world of economics with modern communication and paints a sunny picture of how the world would look if governments would take an active role in shaping our collective future.
"There has been a genuine death of distance in the world," explains Cairncross, a former senior editor of The Economist, in an interview with The Jerusalem Post. Geographical space has been reduced and people can do much of today's work on a computer anywhere in the world. But some jobs will never be done from afar - and some potential benefits of the death of distance will take years to come through. In particular, governments are seriously lagging behind in adopting new technologies. Unlike in the private sector, governments are less concerned with profit margins and the bottom line.
Among Cairncross's other conclusions is the view that developing countries such as those in Africa and the Far East, may eventually make the biggest strides in economic reform. After all, they have most ground to make up. "Give an Indian truck driver a mobile phone or a Chinese village an Internet connection," she writes, "and they are able to leapfrog decades of development."
She also sees big changes in the role of governments, which are the world's greatest service providers, and therefore are bound to be affected by this technological revolution. However, even if governments are slow to make the best use of Internet-based technologies, they will be forced to think differently about taxing and spending. As it becomes easier to work from afar, countries may find that they will have to compete not just for companies but also for citizens, as businesses and people relocate to countries with lower taxes and nicer weather.
Although The Death of Distance was first published back in 1997, it was later reissued with new content in 2001. The book is not like most other technology reads which often become dated a year or two after publication. Many of us already reap the benefits of low-cost communication through services such as free email and other internet services, such as Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). What is unique about Cairncross's book is that she envisions benefits for humankind to increase as more and more people get wired and are thus able to start paying attention to global issues in an unprecedented way. Governments in particular need to take a stance with regard to these changing conditions, and be more active in shaping the world's future.
"Good communications between governments are the bedrock of peace," writes Cairncross, and governments today are better informed of world politics than they once were. "Diplomats can find on the Internet material that once would have been extracted only by a skilled ambassador."
Thanks to the decreasing cost in communications technology, Cairncross sees the next fifty years as a time when people will no longer be able to tolerate tyrannical regimes; she predicts commercial bonds between countries will increase paving the way for increased peace between nations; local environmental issues will become a global concern.
Her visionary and positive stance on the future has earned Cairncross invitations around the globe. This month she is meeting the Australian government to talk about getting women into the communications workforce. In Israel, she attempted to push policy makers into forging relations with less-developed nations in an unconventional way, through Tourism and the Environment. She was also collecting material on a new writing project, The Economics of Birds.
"Israel needs to look East and South rather than just North and West," she says, suggesting that if "Israel could become an accepted part of the Middle East, it could teach a lot to the region."
Cairncross was introduced to influential Israelis and policy makers by ornithologist Yossi Leshem, past director of the Israel Society for the Protection of Nature. Leshem, today a professor at Tel Aviv University, is known by Israelis for his eccentric approach to solving environmental problems.
Leshem's current plan is to get some 5000 kilometers of the Great Rift Valley from northern Syria to central Mozambique recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In so doing, Israeli tourism should increase and birds will be saved from development, he believes. Israel is a migratory bottleneck. About a half-billion birds cross the country twice annually on their Africa-Europe migratory route.
Cairncross thinks that with Africa's cooperation, the Great Rift Valley as a World Heritage Site may just give 22 African nations something to be proud of. Relations today between these nations tend to be "weak, scratchy and political, and only occasionally economic," she says adding that they need something to knit the countries together.
If perhaps encouraged by Israel, but led by the African nations, it could be a real source of pride for these developing countries, she suggests. If the Great Rift Valley were to be protected, she thinks Israel may be the country that can broker the agreement among 22 African nations.
Leshem's work with birds is a perfect model to illustrate how the communications revolution is changing our lives, says Cairncross. At no other point in history could a bird watcher holding binoculars watch birds, while at the same time tracking them by radar and satellite and broadcasting it online, where students - Israelis, Palestinians, Europeans, and Americans - together learn the migratory patterns of birds.
Cairncross decided she would help Leshem persuade Israeli policy makers to shift their much-needed attention to environmental concerns in Israel. At her lecture, Major General Avihu Bin Nun, Avishai Braverman, the vice chancellor of Ben-Gurion University and Itamar Rabinovich, the president of Tel Aviv University were among about 60 who were eager to hear how Israel can help create economic reform in the Middle East in Africa. Many had read her book.
Does the communications revolution bring any special benefits to Israel? Cairncross thinks it does. "Israelis use the English language in communication, they have a high level of education, and are supported by a large Diaspora which contributes in foreign markets. All these factors puts Israel in a position of leading reform," says Cairncross.
Does Frances Cairncross have the answer for peace in the Middle East and beyond? She says the answer for peace lies in having honest and trusted politicians who are visionaries, and she isn't only referring to Israel. Let's hope she's right.
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