Back in October 1996, Wired Magazine published Thomas Bass’s now famous interview with Citibank and Citicorp’s former head Walter Wriston, famous for his observation that information about money was almost as important as money itself.
That insight led to massive technology investments by the then Citibank which helped it become one of the world’s great global banks.
Looking back fifteen years later the interview provides a fascinating time capsule of how the world was changing through the creation of a new information society.
There are some powerful insights on the future of banking and capital markets; for example the vision of the “thin branch”; “the twilight of sovereignty” – the concept of everyone being in charge and sovereign governments becoming less powerful; “stateless money” – a financial market in cyberspace.
One can feel the Egyptian Government switching itself off as it turns off the internet.
The only part of the interview that suggests Mr. Wriston may have been wrong is his view that a financial meltdown can’t happen quoting Gertrude Stein’s observation that “the money is always there but the pockets change.”
Of course a financial meltdown did happen, but it happened not because Mr. Wriston was wrong, but because he was right. We simply failed to grasp the full significance of his remarks.
Thanks in part to the fulfillment of his other vision – the emergence of huge financial supermarkets – we lost control of information or as we now call it data.
In many financial institutions today our data is still all over the place. It is fragmented and often incomplete. In some areas we have so much we can’t possibly absorb it. While some of it travels at the speed of light, other bits don’t travel at all. Major parts of our market are deliberately dark. The result is an incomplete and confusing view of risks, customers, markets and opportunities.
The economic democracy Mr. Wriston envisaged got seriously derailed and like a car without headlights a catastrophe was inevitable. The only question is how quickly we can revive it.
A copy of the interview can be found at: