Technology, Thoughts & Trinkets

Touring the digital through type

Review: Network Nation – Inventing American Telecommunications

Image courtesy of Harvard University Press

I spend an exorbitant amount of time reading about the legacies of today’s telecommunications networks. This serves to historically ground my analyses of today’s telecommunications ecosystem; why have certain laws, policies, and politics developed as they have, how do contemporary actions break from (or conform with) past events, and what cycles are detectable in telecommunications discussions. After reading hosts of accounts detailing the telegraph and telephone, I’m certain that John’s Network Nation: Inventing American Telecommunications is the most accessible and thorough discussion of these communications systems that I’ve come across to date.

Eschewing an anachronistic view of the telegraph and telephone – seeing neither through the lens that they are simply precursors to contemporary digital communications systems – John offers a granular account of how both technologies developed in the US. His analysis is decidedly neutral towards the technologies and technical developments themselves, instead attending to the role(s) of political economy in shaping how the telegraph and telephone grew as services, political objects, and zones of popular contention. He has carefully poured through original source documents and so can offer insights into the actual machinations of politicians, investors, municipal aldermen, and communications companies’ CEOs and engineers to weave a comprehensive account of the telegraph and telephone industries. Importantly, John focuses on the importance of civic ideals and governmental institutions in shaping technical innovations; contrary to most popular understandings that see government as ‘catching up’ to technicians post-WW I, the technicians have long locked their horns with those of government.

In addition to gems about the characters and intentions of various players in the telegraph and telephone industries, the book offers scholars of communications technologies a well sourced and detailed accounting of past regulatory fights. These are instructive, showcasing a rhythm in interests between private corporate ownership and public ownership of communications infrastructure, whilst simultaneously outlining techniques that communications CEOs have used to advance their causes even when their infrastructure is (temporarily) deputized for governmental uses. Further, we see how ‘usage based billing’ systems have been suggested with varying effect since electric communications were possible and can identify common resonances in the discussions of the 19th century, early 20th century, and today. For those whose interests in telecommunications stray into the domain of privacy (as in my case) we find that privacy issues have been rife with earlier telecommunications systems; who, today, would identify a “total stranger” calling you as a particularly egregious privacy violation solely on the basis that they were reaching past your home’s outer walls? This was a serious concern in 1895 with the deployment of ringing telephones.

While the book often tracks well-known grounds – issues between the Independents and the Bell Systems – it unearths novel insights on almost every page. We come to understand some of the rancour between major independents and Bell companies through the public notes that John regularly turns to to underscore or emphasize his point that civic ideals and government departments played key roles in shaping the structure of ‘regulated’ competition. His insights emphasize the weaknesses, today, of relying on infrastructure-based competition instead of common access to key communications infrastructure. Further, we see that wireless was upheld as a successor to telephone and telegraph communications in the early 20th century; wireless promised to “free competition” between wire and wireless communications and render existing telephone properties “worthless” in weeks. Given today’s debates around the promises and potential of wireless communications to compete with ‘traditional’ wireline communications, we would be well served to reflect on how effective such competition has been in the past.

So, where are the weaknesses of the book? In part, we might say that its limitation to just the telegraph and telephone weaken the concluding chapter wherein the author offers a whirlwind account of eighty years of regulatory (in)action in the US. Given how detailed an account we get for the first four hundred pages it seems disappointing to not have the same level of empirical clarity at the very end. Further, this is a book emphasizing American telecommunications and offers little attention to the actions elsewhere in the world; there is no real attempt to engage with International Relations scholarship that investigates the British-American relationship(s) around the telegraph and telephone. It’s also a book with a limited (though well defended) thesis that almost feels reactionary. For example, rather than bombastically claiming that the telegraph operated as a ‘Victorian Internet’ (clearly targeting the thesis of Standage’s book of the same name) it is more suitable to argue that some members of the press saw the value in the telegraph for business purposes and that the system was never particularly accessible to the public. If by ‘The Victorian Internet‘ you mean ‘a communications service largely limited to the upper (business) classes and particular members of the press’ and that this ‘Internet’ was intrinsically shaped by the political economy of the day (rather than being an almost self-generating technical marvel that outstripped regulators’ ability to engage with it) then Standage is correct: the telegraph was a precursor to the Internet. This is not, of course, Standage’s thesis. As an academic, I quite like the limited and well-argued framework that John operates from, though recognize that many people would prefer a wider-ranging conclusion (for such an effort, see Wu’s ‘The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires‘).

To whom would I recommend this book? Obviously, scholars in the field will find this book incredibly profitable. Given today’s tumultuous politics of telecommunications in North America the book offers advocates, members of the public, and policy makers a concise history of what went on in the preceding two centuries of telecommunications regulation. For those interested in usage based billing, issues of Internet congestion, the origins of contemporary communications laws and politics, and relationship between civic attitudes and government regulation of communications services, this is a terrific book. For those wanting to go a step further, wanting to know a little more about the politics and technologies of telecommunications in America post-WW II, I’d recommend taking up Nuechterlein’s and Weiser’s ‘Digital Crossroads: American Telecommunications Policy in the Internet Age‘ as an almost natural continuation of John’s own Network Nation.

4 Comments

  1. Thanks for writing an extensive review Chris. I am reading the Master Switch by Tim Wu at the moment, and really enjoying the narrative. Will add this to my list of must reads.

    Hope all is well with you.

    • Glad the review is helpful – it really is a great book, especially when read the complement Digital Crossroads. Let me know what you end up thinking of the Master Switch; I was disappointed because it didn’t feel like the empirical work was strong enough to support his conclusions at the end of the book around where the Internet fits into ‘the Cycle’. I get the overall push of the book, and it resonates, but just seems kind of ‘flabby’ as an argument when put beside John’s Network Nation, van Schewick’s Internet Architecture and Innovation, or Mueller’s Networks and States. Maybe I just am putting it up against books that are in a different class or scholarship, which might account for my disappointment.

  2. Brilliant review, Chris.

    Crisply written, and great crystallization of so many of the really good themes and contributions that John’s book makes. I’ll take a look into Digital Crossroads. Thanks for the tip.
    Dwayne

    • Thanks for the kind words Dwayne. Digital Crossroads is a beast to read – a ‘nice’ granular accounting of the US regulatory environment that touches on the major technical systems that are regulated – but probably the single best resource on US communications regulation today. I highly recommend it, though to say it’s ‘dry’ would be a massive understatement *grin*

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