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.
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?