Let’s Get Physical

With this post, I’m opening up comments on Old is the New New. I think I have MT-Blacklist installed properly, so hopefully we won’t have many problems with comment spammers. Our readership is, I imagine, small but highly discriminating. So whether you’re an online casino operator, a Nigerian diplomat with a delicate financial proposition, or a gaggle of barely-legal shemale hotties looking to party, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the history of the telephone and the future of networked communication.

I said in my previous throat-clearing post that I’ve been thinking lately about what lessons the early history of the telephone might offer for similar technological issues in our own time. I’m still circling around the topic gingerly, because there’s a lot to digest, and there’s a lot to learn. I’m going to start with small, and perhaps obvious, observations. But here is the first in a series of notions, just one thing to keep in mind when thinking about the internet and technological change:

The network is a physical thing.

You see, there’s this tendency in writing and thinking about something like the internet, or the telephone before it, to forget or deny that physicality. It’s easy to get excited by the idea of an “invisible” network, of “transparency,” of “virtual” spaces and networks that seem to be everywhere and nowhere all at once. But the network isn’t everywhere, and it isn’t nowhere. It’s where the wires are. And its history and its significance looks different when you reckon with that as a physical fact.

Consider the telephone pole. The telephone network certainly seems today to be ubiquitous and unseen. Underground cables and satellite links render large parts of the telephone network literally invisible. The rest of the network escapes our notice due to its familiarity and reliability. Which of the streets you passed on the way to work today had telephone poles and which did not? I doubt that I could say with any certainty, and I spend more time thinking about telephone poles than anyone really ought to.

One hundred years ago, telephone poles and wires were neither reliable nor familiar. And the corporeal fact of the telephone network was much harder, both physically and politically, to ignore. Before about 1900, the majority of telephone lines ran above ground, and every private phone required its own separate wire. That’s a lot of lines! In large cities like New York and Chicago, telephone poles stood up to ninety feet high, and blackened the sky with thousands and thousands of wires.

Emotions on the seemingly prosaic subject of poles and wires ran very hot. Vigilantes tore down telephone poles by night; telephone company workers snuck out to erect them under cover of darkness. Farmers feared telephone and telegraph wires were altering the weather. During a smallpox epidemic in Montreal in 1885, rumors spread that the disease was transmitted over telephone lines, and an angry mob attacked the telephone exchange and tore down its lines. The Montreal Star was only partly joking when it testified against telephone poles in the early 1880s:

Boys can’t fly kites for these wires; good-natured gentleman slightly at sea can’t steer their way home through the poles in early morning. Housewives can’t see what’s going on in the streets from their windows; tobogganing is fatal; policemen can’t catch thieves; runaway horses smash their vehicles; and the poles don’t understand the damage they are doing, and therefore it is useless to berate them as we do our equally wooden City Council.

These sorts of anecdotes aside, the physicality of telephone poles and wires was important because they were the principal site of conflict and negotiation between telephone companies and local governments. Municipal governments in the 1880s and 1890s were limited in the ways they could control an outside company like Bell Telephone. They couldn’t set telephone prices and they couldn’t overturn Bell’s patent monopoly. Instead, they seized what powers they did have–sovereignty over streets and sidewalks and skies–and leveraged them for whatever advantages they could exact. In the Midwestern United States, municipal governments proved very successful in asserting authority over poles and wires; in Central Canada, they were remarkably unsuccessful. This split had a lasting impact on the development of the industry and the network in each locale.

Anyway, that’s just one example of what I’m talking about. The over-used trope of an invisible, intangible communication network tends to conceal the massive effort and labor that goes into building it and operating it. (The network–whether it’s the telephone, the internet, what have you–may seem transparent when it’s working perfectly, but it becomes maddeningly opaque the instant something breaks down.) It hides the physical constraints and bottlenecks that shape its growth. It denies the possible effects of the network on the people that don’t use it. It obscures the choices made and the paths not taken, all the accommodations and compromises built into the network, and the momentum generated by those very choices.

So the question for the class today is: are there physical aspects of the internet, or the modern telecommunications universe, that talk of “cyberspace” and an “invisible empire” and a “wireless web” ignore? Are there technical bottlenecks in the system that give some interests leverage over others? Do the messy realities of meatspace provide any access points for actors that we might otherwise dismiss as irrelevant to the allegedly ubiquitous, intangible, global net?

One that comes to mind is the “last mile” of broadband internet access, and what seems to be the coming fight between telephone companies, cable companies, power companies, what have you, for control of those lines. But I would be surprised if there weren’t others.

Tangent #1: I searched the New York Times archives for every mention of the term “telephone pole” in the NYT from the 1870s through the 1920s. (Yes, it’s true, I am a wild party. And speaking of history and technology, how cool is it that I can do that search with just the click of a mouse? Oh, and an expensive online subscription paid for by my alma mater.) Anyway, there were a few hundred hits, which divided quite neatly into three categories:

1. Political battles between municipal governments and telephone companies. (This is what I was looking for.)
2. Cars and/or carriages crashing into telephone poles. Lots of fatalities.
3. Lynchings.

That last category was chilling in its regularity. Something about using the telephone pole as a gallows–so modern and urban–makes the lynchings of the era seem rather less distant than the kind of creepy gnarled trees I typically picture when I think about lynching or hear Billie Holliday’s “Strange Fruit.”

Tangent #2: Au contraire, mon frere, I hear you say. All that jazz about the physicality of the network might have been true in bygone days of land lines and Model T Fords, but today’s future is wireless! No physical fetters, no wire trusts, no bosses but level bosses. Set your laptop free! Well, possibly. I have to learn more about both the politics and the technology of wireless today. But I do remember that “wireless” was also a magic word in the 1900s and 1910s, and I know the tale of how the coming of commercial radio in the 1920s required the wild frontier of wireless amateurs be brought to heel.

Of course, wireless transmissions are physical too. Indeed, because the electromagnetic spectrum is a finite space, constraints on its use are in some ways more real and permanent than bottlenecks in the wired world. We can usually build more wires, but we haven’t, as far as I know, found any way to build extra rooms onto the electromagnetic spectrum.

I sometimes think about the radio waves passing through us as we’re walking down the street. We don’t hear or see a thing, but braying drive-time DJs and cell phone conversations and Boston’s Only Classic Rock are hurtling through our vital organs at the speed of light. They’re harmless, I suppose, but that’s not my point. If we contemplated the fact that they are all around us, that our air is their medium, might we ask more questions about to whom the spectrum ultimately belongs?


  1. Hi!

    Great blog, great post, great that comments are up. Look forward to much more of the same in future.

    But my dinner is ready…

  2. Mmm, last mile technologies.

    Some will remember Richochet, a wireless modem company popular in the 90s. They had fairly good coverage (at fairly slow speeds) in Silicon Valley and… perhaps Seattle? They put their nodes on, you guessed it, telephone poles. In the end it proved too expensive for a smallish startup to put physical infrastructure all over the place, particularly since DSL/cable modems were suddenly providing high bandwidth at competitive prices.

    The unlicensed spectrum which powers 802.11 technologies was freed from regulation in 1985. Pretty shocking move, in some ways. People proceeded to argue about how to do wireless in that chunk of the spectrum for years and years until a consortium made some decisions and Apple said “deliver us a card for under $100 and we’ll put a card slot in every laptop we sell.” The rest is history.

    WiMax is the new WiFi, with better range and better speed. It uses spectrum which is in large part owned, and the FCC did not free that up… so while technologically the standard is better, I am uncertain that it will catch on in the way that WiFi’s been able to.

    And the wireless promise really just shifts the last mile problem a little ways down the road. I happen to have a DSL connection that I can legally share with as many people as I like. Most people don’t, so where do you terminate your wireless mesh?

    The best experiment in wireless meshes I know of is run by my old boss, Tim Pozar, out in San Francisco: http://www.archive.org/web/sflan.php

    For around $1000 you can put a wireless node on your roof, which extends network coverage to anyone within a certain distance of you. Bandwidth is paid for by nice people. Which is one way to solve the problem.

  3. Agreed 100%. To make this about me and my work (isn’t it always?), a fixation on the ethereal also obscures the physical labour of creating/developing/maintaining/disposing of technology (the latter of which nobody really ever discusses – where the hell does it all go?). The people who laboured to put up those telephone poles, the people who are currently crawling through my office walls to install fibre, the people sticking little bits of plastic and wire together to make circuit boards… who are they? what is their demographic and material position?

    I also smell a whiff of “Well, I don’t see race/gender/ability/whatever”, i.e. a desire to not see who does what, or the messiness of physical facticity, in technological developments. It’s so much easier to focus on the intangible as an extension of our technological ‘Magination. But really, whose hands are getting splinters from that telephone pole?

    Uh huh huh. Pole.

  4. I could tell a billion or so stories about the invisibility of the technologists, but then again, that’s the field I’m in so I’m biased.

  5. So the question for the class today is: are there physical aspects of the internet, or the modern telecommunications universe, that talk of “cyberspace” and an “invisible empire” and a “wireless web” ignore? Are there technical bottlenecks in the system that give some interests leverage over others? Do the messy realities of meatspace provide any access points for actors that we might otherwise dismiss as irrelevant to the allegedly ubiquitous, intangible, global net?

    Well, outside of North America, there are places where the supposedly aspatial internet is being regulated in part through the control of physical space. An example from a March 1999 New York Times article on Saudi Arabia:

    Censorship in Saudi Arabia is even more overt. Under a system that took two years to develop, all Internet connections in the country have been routed through a hub outside Riyadh, where high-speed Government computers block access to thousands of sites catalogued on a rapidly expanding blacklist….

    To enforce the rules, the Saudi Government has assumed the role of parent, using commercial software like Smart Filter, by Secure Computer, to screen all requests and block contact to sites it wants kept off-limits. The software is updated every day, Saudi officials say, as Riyadh-based technicians add new sites to the blacklist, in part by watching to see which sites Saudis seek out.

    Of course, people are developing ways to get around these protections – in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere – but governments are fighting back. Where do companies stand on this? Some have been working to get around the restrictions but others have actively competed to strengthen the internet walls.

    So much for the idea of a naturally democratizing internet, annihilating space with no regard for political, business, and personal (or even personnel) decisions. This is not to say that the internet cannot proceed along decentralized and democratic lines – only that people must choose to make that happen, and that their choices will have a real impact on, and be subject to the limitations of, the physical world.

    (Incidentally, you’re right, the Times archive is great. When I sat down to write this comment all I remembered was reading about Saudi Arabia in the paper a few years ago. And the articles I’ve linked are what turned up in a quick search. Unfortunately, each of these links requires an institutional subscription to the archive, so not everyone can read them for free.)

  6. Thanks for the comments, all!

    I was already reading Sharon’s excellent Early Modern History blog before her comment (and I’ve just bookmarked her long list of sources on the British East India Co for later perusal), & now I’ve added her to the blogroll on the right so you can find her too. Dr. K is too modest to link to herself, but she’s the brains behind this and this. Bryant (he’s already on the blogroll, as Population: One gave me a crash course in all the stuff I was pretending to know about in the above post over beers at the Thirsty Scholar last week. It was great. More on that to come. And I don’t have contact info for Andrew, but Andrew, thanks much for your comment and the Saudi Arabia links. I’ve had a number of conversations lately about the crumbling “Great Firewall of China,” but the Saudi version actually seems rather more effective. Interesting times.

  7. And of course there is the greatest physicality of all – the minds/bodies behind not just the design of the system and its installation, but also behind every message, be it by finger on keyboard or voicebox creating sounds waves to be read by microphones ….

    This is beautifully demonstrated by one of the great problems of “virtual reality” – not-at-all-virtual nauseau induced by bodies’ refusal to let go of physical reality.

    I could go on, this being one of my pet topics, but if you are interested in this approach there’s a lot more in my thesis.

    (You might also enjoy the blog of a guy who sails around the world fixing those cables on which it all depends … A View From the Bridge.)

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