The New Wealth of Nations

By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2001-08-06

In the 1700s, a British citizen could not legally emigrate if he knew how to design and build textile machinery. An ambitious 21-year-old named Samuel Slater, having just finished his apprenticeship in the textile industry, called himself a farm worker and went to America—where it suddenly turned out he remembered all hed been taught.

Slaters water-powered mill, built in Rhode Island in 1793, earned him the title "Father of the American Industrial Revolution." Imagine that. If only British authorities had been able to read his mind or at least keep better track of employment histories.

I felt as if 18th-century paranoia had met its match in 21st-century IT when I encountered, in the course of an unrelated Web search, the U.S. State Departments Technology Alert List. The TAL is a sprightly compendium of adjectives and nouns that are supposed to trigger extra attention to requests for entry into this country for purposes that might suggest a risk of illicit technology transfer.

What are some of the sensitive technologies that need to be protected? The most current version of the list I can find is comprehensive, to say the least, with entries from "accelerator" through "X-ray." Other notable entries include "CPU," "interface," "microprocessor," "optical fiber," "programming" and (are we sure I can write about this?) "solid state." Who does this leave free of suspicion? Basket weavers?

It seems a very short step from restricting entrance visas, based on voluntary disclosure of technical interests, to restricting the foreign travel of U.S. citizens based on whether they know too much.

But whats the point? National borders are transparent to bits, whether were talking about a CAD file sent by e-mail or a gene sequence sent by fax.

Competition among nations, like that among IT providers, will have to be based on superior implementation and operational efficiency—because control of knowledge hasnt worked for more than 200 years.

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