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.
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In the domain of telecom policy, it seems like a series of bad ideas (re)arise alongside major innovations in communications systems and technologies. In this post, I want to turn to the telegraph to shed light on issues of communication bandwidth, security and privacy that are being (re)addressed by regulators around the world as they grapple with the Internet. I’ll speak to the legacy of data retention in analogue and digital communicative infrastructures, congestion management, protocol development, and encryption policies to demonstrate how these issues have arisen in the past, and conclude by suggesting a few precautionary notes about the future of the Internet. I do want to acknowledge, before getting into the meat of this post, that while the telegraph can be usefully identified as a precursor to the digital Internet because of the strong analogies between the two technological systems it did use different technological scaffolding. Thus, lessons that are drawn are based on the analogical similarities, rather than technical homogeneity between the systems.
The telegraph took years to develop. Standardization was a particular issues, perhaps best epitomized by the French having an early telegraph system of (effectively) high-tech signal towers, whereas other nations struggled to develop interoperable cross-continental electrically-based systems. Following the French communication innovation (which was largely used to coordinate military endeavours), inventors in other nations such as Britain and the United States spent considerable amounts of time learning how to send electrical pulses along various kinds of cables to communicate information at high speed across vast distances.
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