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|Authors investigating the impact of telecommunications can, generally
speaking, write for depth or breadth. Diffie and Landau's Privacy on the
Line embodies the former approach in that the authors focus almost
exclusively on personal privacy as affected by wiretapping and cryptography.
Cairncross' The Death of Distance, on the other hand, covers
telecommunications in its near-infinite variety.
I was drawn to The Death of Distance for several reasons. The first is that the author is a Senior Editor at The Economist, an outstanding magazine; the second is that the author is English, rather than American as with most (if not all) of the books I've read on telecommunications; third, that she lists her predictions for change at the start, removing any doubt as to where she stands; and, finally, the range of topics covered is truly impressive. While most of the issues Cairncross covers were dealt with in books I'd read previously, that this book was written in early-to-mid 1997 (and based on a survey done in 1995) speaks well of its author's and editors' foresight.
While most of Cairncross' arguments are obviously consistent, there is an interesting juxtaposition of ideas in the foreword, entitled "The Trendspotter's Guide to New Communication". In Trend 20, the author envisages a "shift from government policing to self-policing", while in Trend 21 she predicts a drop in crime as "[g]overnments and companies will easily monitor people's movements". Civil libertarians will be concerned, of course, but Cairncross believes the majority will gladly trade true privacy for a reduction in unsolved crimes.
It's interesting to compare The Death of Distance with David Brin's The Transparent Society on this point. Cairncross works (and, I presume, lives) in London, a city where cameras monitor some public places with the goal of reducing crime by ensuring perpetrators will be seen and caught. Brin noted that those cameras will, in all likelihood, become all-pervasive, with the only issue being whether the surveillance will be bidirectional.
It is a particularly, if not uniquely, American sentiment to distrust government to such an extent as to value privacy over crime reduction. That Cairncross does not perceive a conflict between Trends 20 and 21 illustrates her differing values. It's that difference, in part, that makes this book worth reading.
The rest of The Death of Distance is a wonderful survey of how telecommunications is affecting the world. One tidbit I found particularly interesting was on page 165, where the author cited a 1988 Australian Bureau of Transport and Communications Economics that estimated the cost of providing phone service for "uneconomic" (meaning rural and small market) customers. Rather than the 19% of annual revenues the (then) Australian monopolistic phone company estimated, the total was determined to be between 1.5% and 3%. Not insignificant, but certainly an argument that subsidizing universal phone service was much less costly than previously assumed.
The Death of Distance is an entertaining and exceptionally informative book covering an impressive array of issues; it would be perfect on the reading list of an Internet economics student, a policy-maker, or anyone interested in what the telecommunications field might look like in the near future.
Curtis D. Frye (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the editor and chief reviewer of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He worked for four years as a defense industry analyst at The MITRE Corporation in McLean, VA, and is the author of Privacy-Enhanced Business, from Quorum Books.