Communications Technologies and the Ethics of Access

by Frances Ford Plude

Frances Forde Plude, Ph.D., earned her doctorate at Harvard University and studied satellite communications at MIT. She taught at the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University, and is currently associate professor of communication at Notre Dame College, Cleveland, Ohio. She is co-author of Communication Ethics and Global Change (Longman Press), and has contributed chapters to numerous works. As part of a planning and research project, Dr. Frances FordePlude recently met with the communications ministersof all 13 European Community nations.

This article originally appeared in Insights on Global Ethics (Institute for Global Ethics, Box 563 Camden, Maine 04843), May 1993


Why is access to communications a basic right? Information is the key word. In an information society, access to information equals empowerment. When large numbers of people are nodes in a communication network, the messages cannot be controlled. This communication pattern empowers groups.

The ministry of communications in Prague is located in an oppressive building that, until an uncomfortably short time ago, housed the chief bureaucrats of the Czechoslovakian Communist party. Communications minister Frantisek Hesoun moved into an office there, and during our recent meeting about the possibilities of collaborative development of new communication technologies, he handed me a copy of his nation's major planning document.

The irony was striking: In what used to be a bastion of government secrecy, I was casually being shown a document central to the economic structure of the republic. Moreover, the project was being pursued with an unexpected sense of enthusiasm: "I wish I were twenty years younger," Hesoun said. 'I could devote more energy to this project, and to yours. They will be very helpful in solving many of the problems we are facing."

Collaboration, Communications, and Ethics

The problems to which he referred were more than just economic issues. Hesoun recognized that he and other forward-thinking officials are on the cutting edge of a revolution that is both technological and social: a communications revolution that will have profound economic, social, and ethical impact, particularly in the creation of new opportunities for collaborative progress. Solving problems through collaborative effort is more than just a strategic method of implementing new communication networks. It is a process with profound ethical import. As one example, consider that access to communications is now recognized as essential to the growth and welfare of societies and individuals. The 'right to information," for example, has been defined as a fundamental human right in the United Nations Charter.

Why is access to communications a basic right? Remember that when we discuss communications, we are not restricting the definition to media such as television programming. Information is the key word. In an information society, access to information equals empowerment. Empowerment through information access can be as basic a matter as a farmer in a developing nation being able to call and find out the current prices for his crops, or as large-scale as an educational satellite video network designed to span the vast territory of India.

A Philosophy of Collaboration

But the very nature of an underdeveloped nation undermines the ability to put information in the hands of

people who need it most-which is why collaborative efforts are proving so beneficial. When collaborative technological ventures are managed correctly, everyone wins. In the example of India's educational network, India and the United States joined forces to produce a system that benefited both parties. India, a huge nation with a scattered population, desperately needed a way to reach people with information on birth control, basic education, and farming. Satellite transmission was the only logical choice, but launching a satellite was beyond the capabilities of India's technology.

The solution: India and the United States entered into a joint agreement under which NASA would contribute much of the resources necessary to orbit the satellite and establish the network. NASA had use of the satellite for scientific experiments while India was gearing up its educational network. By the time the network was established, India had developed the technology to continue operation of the network on its own.

Almost any nation that is in some way deprived counts improved information technology as part of the solution. That solution, many believe, must be viewed as part of a global effort. It is the only way that the have nots can become haves.

Revising the Competitive Spirit

In the United States, we are accustomed to the competitive view of doing business: "We made it on our own; why can't they?" It is becoming clear, though, that this is now a global economy, a global market, and no one can do business in an international vacuum. Many members of the global village feel we must reevaluate our thinking about the nature of communications.

Leaders of virtually every nation recognize this trend. In Dublin, for example, there is a science and technology agency that, as part of its mission, attracts new business to Ireland. Tony McDonald, the agency's telecommunications project director, was candid in his assessment. "If businesses can't communicate," McDonald said, 'why would they come to Ireland?" The result: Ireland is entering into a collaborative venture with European Community nations to develop the type of infrastructure needed to sustain business communications-satellite access, telephone and computer transmission, fax service, and video conferencing.

Communications: Planning for An Electronic Tidal Wave

European Community leaders leave little doubt as to the importance of the communications revolution on an economic and social level. EC members estimate that the new media-the web of technologies that includes telephones, laser discs, satellites, mobile phones, fax machines, and computers-will supply 12 percent of the EC's GNP and employ over 60 percent of its workers.

While the economic impact of advancing communications technology is staggering, the future social impact will be something of an electronic tidal wave. Information technologies are tools-new ways of solving problems. The product "manufactured" by these tools, the information itself, becomes a new kind of commodity. And ownership of this product brings with it a new kind of economic and political power. Ethical issues arise when information technologies are designed without reference to social responsibility guidelines.

In recent years, central political control has been under attack; Prague, Moscow, the Philippines, and Thailand are prominent examples. Ironically, the communications monopolies that were once instruments of control have been broken by new technologies that enable citizens to interact on local and regional levels: fax machines, beepers, videocassettes, and high-tech telephones.

We remember, for example, the flow of information from mainland China during the Tiananmen Square uprising. The communist government tried mightily to stanch communications from the dissidents, but the fax machine made political barriers hopelessly porous. Newsletters, posters, and news reports were able to reach the West; printed documents transmitted literally at the speed of light were powerful tools to stir opinion overseas. Satellite video transmission brought instant video into Western living rooms, and the image of a lone Chinese blocking the path of a tank became a symbol of resistance.

When scholar George Kennan was asked why the power of the people on the streets erupted in Moscow, the first reason he cited was "the communications revolution." Note that he did not say 'mass media." He said "the communications revolution." This term goes way beyond reference to CNN broadcasts. It is more inclusive and addresses deep and significant communication dynamics.

Observers have noted that telephones, fax machines, newsletters, and Mikhail Gorbachev's BBC broadcasts were the tools used to chip away the former Soviet Union.

The point? When large numbers of people are nodes in a communication network, the messages cannot be controlled. This communication pattern empowers groups. Authority, whether legitimate or not, seems to move from the top to the "grass roots." Pyramid-type organizations of all types are under siege to a large degree because people communicate easily in new and interactive ways. Technology, politics, and economics are now becoming integrated in bold ways to provide multiple electronic highways over which these interactive and powerful messages travel.

Again, the power of these messages raises the ethical issue of access. Analysts are already using the terms "information-rich" and "information-poor." To return to a previous example, a farmer in a remote area of India needs to know prices in a regional marketplace in order to negotiate the best price for his product. A village telephone is a practical information technology in such a case. Millions of such scenarios around the globe demonstrate the practical need for a new public philosophy of access. This is a subtle component of the dynamics of universal solidarity.

Dynamic communication-driven changes affect the power structure of businesses as well. Management consultant Peter Drucker predicts that business structures will evolve to accommodate the computer-distributed messages. To be effective, the current pyramid structure of the corporation will be recycled into fewer management layers, with many mid management slots disappearing altogether. The new leader, Drucker maintains, will be like a symphony conductor, coordinating employees grouped around tasks, rather than a general passing down orders to personnel arranged within strict hierarchies.

Communications, Rights, and Reasoning

Given the inevitability of the communications-connected global village, the crucial importance of access, and the change in "top-down" lines of authority, what role will ethical and moral reasoning play? Many observers believe that we must change our thinking about the very nature of our rights and responsibilities in business and society. In particular, we must be willing to share the wealth of information available. International coalitions must link the information-rich and information-poor of the globe. This is more than an ethical consideration, it is a first - level economic imperative, since healthy and well-educated citizens enrich our global environment and our markets.

In addition, we must work to realistically bridge barriers ethnic,-economic, and political. We must ask how we can design incentives for cooperative action, but we must also learn how to communicate through adversarial positions that have been honestly arrived at. Enlightened compromise is the heart of progress. As Mary Parker Follett, an organizational specialist who helped found the Harvard Business School, pointed out, "We should never allow ourselves to be bullied by an 'either-or.' There is often the possibility of something better than either of the two given alternatives."

Finally, it is crucial to keep in mind that communications is not about technology, per se. It is about people. As Sherry Turkle, author of The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit, points out: "We cede to the computer the power of reason, but at the same time, in our defense, our sense of identity becomes increasingly focused on the soul and spirit in the human machine."