Vicken Cheterian

Age of Communication: where the envelop is worth more than the message!

Communication pays. If one considers the top five billionaires on Forbes list we have top three who made their money from software development or telecommunications. Bill Gates, the chairman of Microsoft is back to position number one with his fortune estimated 81.7 billion dollars; then comes the Mexican-Lebanese Carlos Slim an investor who originally got rich thanks to investments in Latin American Mexican industries; at third place is Warren Buffett the famous American investor, while in the fifth position is Larry Ellison the head of Oracle another software development firm. 

Lower on the list of billionaires is Larry Page of Google who has a personal fortune of 32.3 billion. Marc Zuckergerb, a computer programmer who founded Facebook social networking site, is the biggest winner in one-year period whose fortune has jumped from 15.2 billion in 2013 to 28.5 billion in early 2014. 

Our modern economy is going through a technological revolution, that of computers, digital technologies and telecommunication industry. For the last two decades it was this sector that marked the expansion of markets and accumulation of fortunes. The list of top billionaires reflects this fact. Just like any other major technological revolution, the current one has brought a new social class to dominate modern societies. Yet, if there are winners, there should be losers. Who are they?

But let us go to the origin of current communication revolution, which started back in 1436 when Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable printing machine. This invention led to major developments in European history: it led to the emergence of book industry, which stimulated both paper and book production, which later served as one of the reasons for the development of capitalism. It also led to the decline of scripts, the monopolistic role of the Catholic Church over knowledge, and the spread of education. There could have been no reformation and no separation between church and state without this underpinning development. 

It also led to the emergence of a new social group, known as the intelligenti in Italian, a new group of educated people who simultaneously worked as essayists, and publishers. They were journalists and travel writers, authors and translators. Most important, for the first time this educated class was independent from both church and prince. They are the precursors of the modern intelligentsia, a group of people who are supposed to reflect on socially relevant issues with an independent spirit.

Technological change engenders social change, as the above examples witnesses, and the question is what kind of social transformation did the digital revolution bring about? If we rely on the Forbes top billionaires, then we conclude that computer engineers have surpassed even investors and occupy the summit of capitalist power. Then, the question is, who are the losers? To illustrate the new balance of social power, the best example I can think about is the fate of Washington Post, the powerful American daily paper that shapes the opinion of the political elite in the most powerful country. 

One of the opinion makers at the centre of American political power is clearly Washington Post daily. The paper suffered financial loss just like other western print press, as a result of the emergence of the internet and social media. Both sales dropped and publicity market found more performing instrument to spread its message through the internet. The saviour of Washington Post was Jeff Bezos, yet another computer engineer who has founded Amazon in 1994, an internet based trading platform. Amazon was initially a book trading online company, which has since developed to broader e-commerce. Bezos’s personal wealth is appreciated at 27 billion, and in 2013 he bought Washington Post for a mere 250 million USD.

This case illustrates well the winners and the losers of the digital age. Engineers and investors have accumulated huge financial and economic power, while institutions that shape public opinion, newspapers, or book publishers, are hardly surviving. Amazon, which is no more than postal service, a mediator between producers and consumers, can accumulate billions and buy Washington Post for kopeks. Amazon owner buying a leading newspaper is like the postman buying the writer and publisher, or like the wine bottles being valued higher than the wine itself. The intelligenti as a social group that started developing in Venice in early renaissance are witnessing their downfall today. If they do not have financial independence, how can they have independence of the intellect? 

In the digital age, to communicate is the real value. It generates enormous financial richness. But what you communicate, the content that passes through the new digital channels is irrelevant, and simply worthless on the stock market.