It is my heart-warm and world-embracing Christmas hope and aspiration that all of us—the high, the low, the rich, the poor, the admired, the despised, the loved … the hated, the civilized, the savage … may eventually be gathered together in a heaven of everlasting rest and peace and bliss—except the inventor of the telephone.
—Mark Twain, 1878
That quotation doesn’t really relate to what I’m about to talk about, but it does amuse me. Twain (or Samuel Clemens—I never know whether it’s more correct to refer to an author by his name or better known pseudonym) was actually a big techie, an early adopter if you like. The fact that he even had a telephone in 1878 is pretty good proof of that. But new technologies could be irritating in 1878 in exactly the same way they can be irritating today. Hence Twain’s grumpy Christmas message. I believe Alexander Graham Bell actually wrote to him in mock protest after that was published, and Twain issued a sort of retraction, extending best wishes to Bell and instead ejecting the director of Twain’s local telephone company from his wished for heaven of peace and rest.
Anyway, Mark Twain also said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” And that does relate to what I’m about to talk about. You see, I wrote this dissertation, which I’m now turning into a book, about the political and cultural history of the telephone from the 1870s through the 1920s. And for some time now, I’ve been saying in talks and papers and grant proposals, “This story offers many lessons for our own era of rapid technological change.” And it’s true. There are many, many similarities between the struggles over telephony a century ago—who would control the telephone, how it would be regulated, what it was for, and what it meant—and debates over the internet, wireless, and other communication technologies today. In many ways, the world of telecommunications in the year 2004 looks more like the world of telecommunications in the year 1904 than it did for most of the twentieth century.
(Memo to myself: one of the big breakpoints in early telephone history comes in 1907. So if I want to keep using that “200x looks a lot like 190x” construction, I really should get the book out by 2007. Which was my plan anyway.)
The real genesis of my project came about five years ago when I discovered several shelves of turn-of-the-century telephone industry journals in the stacks of Cabot Library, with names like Telephony and Sound Waves and American Telephone Journal. This was in the late 1990s, and I immediately recognized in those journals exactly the same breathless enthusiasm for technology, the same heady mix of utopian we’re-gonna-save-the-world idealism and we’re-gonna-get-filthy-stinking-rich hucksterism that filled the pages of Wired and Fast Company and all the other chroniclers/enablers of the dot-com gold rush.
(Tangent: like more and more library collections, all those journals are now in an offsite depository, where they can be recalled individually, but they can’t just be discovered by meandering bookworms like myself. Good for the preservation of the journals, bad for serendipitous discovery. The problem of preservation versus access in libraries and archives: it’s a doozy.)
The parallels between our own “information revolution” and the “revolution” of a century ago informed my dissertation, but they weren’t at the center of that work. I was writing a work of history, and it was important to me that I approach that history on its own terms. It’s foolish to pretend that history is not written in the present for present-day purposes or inspired by present-day concerns. But professional historians are rightly wary of overt “presentism” and anachronism, and predicting the future is right out.
That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t toss out the line in an article or a talk about how this story offers “lessons for our own time.” But in an audience of historians, I could be pretty confident that whenever I did, everyone would just nod sagely and nobody would ask me to follow up. I don’t really blame them. Do you remember the late 1990s? Most reasonable people were probably grateful for some brief moment in their life when they didn’t have to engage in discussion about the internet and the new economy and Y2K and what it all meant. So I kept my focus on what the telephone story of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century told us about the late nineteenth and early twentieth century—quite a lot, in my opinion—and I generally left it to my readers and listeners to draw conclusions for our own times.
This year, since my graduation, has been a bit of a culture shock. At the AAAS where I work, at the Harvard Business School where I have some contacts, and out in the world, I’m talking to a lot more people from a wider range of disciplines, including some very smart people who are actively involved in studying, and in some cases making, the modern internet and telecom worlds. When I say to them, “The early history of the telephone offers lessons for our own time,” they ask, “What are those lessons?” Which, to anyone but a historian, is a pretty reasonable question. I have to stop letting it catch me off guard.
A nice moment from Seinfeld:
New Yorker editor (failing to explain a cartoon): “It’s a commentary on contemporary mores.”
Elaine: “But what is the comment?”
So one of my many projects this year has been bringing myself up to speed on modern developments in telecommunication—“modern” meaning after 1926 or so—and thinking in a more rigorous way about what lessons or patterns we can see in the past that are really worth remembering in the future. I do this with some trepidation. One thing I saw again and again in my research was how people trying to understand the telephone one hundred years ago looked to earlier technologies like the telegraph and the railroad. In my opinion, those precedents narrowed possibilities and obscured original thinking at least as often as they suggested useful strategies or ideas.
But I think the general shape of the story does offer several useful lessons. Not predictions. The whole point of my work on the telephone is that nothing was inevitable. There were choices made, and not made, at each and every step of the telephone’s spread. At the start of the twenty-first century, as at the start of the twentieth, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to make choices about technology. These choices demand debate and discussion over issues like competition, monopoly, regulation, community, nationalism, globalization, etc., etc.—all issues that bedeviled our ancestors one hundred years ago.
You’ll notice I still haven’t actually gotten to what the lessons are. Don’t worry. I’m getting there! “To be continued,” as Jim Carroll says at the close of every discussion. One prediction I am confident in making: there is more on this subject to come.