The Gilded Age Internet and the People's Telephone

Baa. Baa.

Ten years ago, Tom Standage wrote a best-seller called The Victorian Internet, which elaborated many similarities between the 19th century telegraph and today’s interwebs. One could write a similar book about the early telephone, and in some ways, I guess I am doing just that. (I will next write a book about the Pony Express called The Jacksonian Internet, then a book about CB radio called The Jimmy Carterian Internet, and finally a book about the internet called The Millennial Pneumatic Tube.) I met Standage at this year’s Business History Conference and he cheerfully admitted that he was in the business of “simplification and exaggeration.” After several years of doing the opposite to the history of telephony, simplifying and exaggerating sounds like something fun to try.

The telephone may offer a better parallel to the internet than the telegraph, since the phone became a popular medium in a way the telegraph never matched. Invented in 1876, the telephone is just as “Victorian” as the telegraph, but I prefer the term “Gilded Age Internet,” both because I’m most interested in the American story and because for me, “Gilded Age” emphasizes a political as well as cultural context for technological change, which Standage’s book, like everything written about the internet in the 1990s, largely overlooked.Way back in ought-four, I set out to write a series of blog posts mining the early history of telephony for insights into the communication revolutions of today. “In many ways,” I said, “the world of telecommunications in 2004 looks more like the world of 1904 than it did for most of the twentieth century.” That series of posts didn’t get too far: here’s part one and here’s part two. I found it hard to use a blogging voice when writing about academic work, especially when that work was still developing, and soon decided I was more comfortable blogging on other subjects. But as my book about telephony (gradually) nears completion, I’m thinking big picture once again, and I’m still struck by parallels between the political economy of information today and one hundred years ago. A lot changed just between 2004 and 2008, but a lot changed between 1904 and 1908 too, and not much of it for the better. These parallels are neither predictive nor exact, but to say of the internet and telephone, “2008 looks like 1908” is, I fear, a much more pessimistic observation than it was to say “2004 looks like 1904.”

Without getting into specific issues yet (I hope to continue this in a series of posts–aren’t you lucky?), the silhouette of my story looks like this: The telephone was invented by somebody or other (I’ll save that can of worms for another day) in 1876. For the next decade or so it remained a tool of business and a privilege of the wealthy. But in the 1890s, legal and technological changes made the mass diffusion of telephony possible. Telephone use exploded. The number of phones in North America shot from the thousands to the millions. Tens of thousands of little companies sprang up to meet, and stoke, the demand. The rhetoric of the 1890s boom was all techno-utopian populism. The new telecom entrepreneurs were at once idealistic and opportunistic young techies. They saw few contradictions between smashing the old Bell and Western Union monopolies, liberating the people, and getting crazy rich. Is any of this sounding familiar?

Municipal governments also got active in the telephone boom, especially in the Midwest. And it’s in states like Iowa, Indiana, and Ohio, where municipal governments were most active and the Bell companies were not, that we see the most telephones per capita by 1900, the most anti-Bell sentiment, and the highest frequency of telephone use. These states also had the most rural and working-class people using telephones, and often the most women. And they are where you’d find the most vibrant expression of a new participatory telephone culture, one marked by locally owned and oriented networks, by social and indeed frivolous use of the telephone, by experimentation and innovation among users as well as producers, and by communal practices like eavesdropping and rural party lines. Call it Telephone 2.0 if you like. In my book I call it what contemporaries called it: the people’s telephone.

But here is the twist in the tale, and the thing that spoils so many swell “yay for the future” books I otherwise want to love. Between 1904 and 1908, give or take, the Bell System got its shit together. And over the next ten to twenty years, as AT&T took control of American telephony, that vibrant, participatory, frivolous, local, social telephone culture mostly went away. It wasn’t just a matter of ten thousand little telephone systems selling out or going bankrupt, though that definitely cast a pall. State and federal regulation ended municipal engagement with the telephone and entrenched the AT&T monopoly. Billing structures and protocols of polite behavior changed to define and suppress “misuse” and “overuse” of the wires. The autonomy of Bell’s own operating companies, once a key source of local variation and innovation, was curtailed to meet the alleged demands of long distance service. Private lines replaced party lines and operators replaced dial phones (no, I don’t have that backwards), which represented a significant shift in control from the community back to the corporation. Telephone 2.0 was replaced by Telephone 1.0.

I am simplifying and exaggerating here, as Tom Standage counseled. But this story runs so counter to expectations about technology, about the way it’s supposed to get better, freer, and more democratic, that I’m trying to speak emphatically. The “people’s telephone” existed for a moment, then it didn’t. Many folks in my parents’ and especially grandparents’ generation remember when the telephone was a forbidding device. You used it for emergencies. You said your piece and got off the lines, lines you were very aware you did not own. And when the phone rang after dark, it had to mean terrible news. But for the very first generation that grew up with the telephone, the parents of my grandparents, this wasn’t necessarily so. Muncie farm girls in the 1890s and early 1900s flirted at length with their beaus on the telephone, then got off the line to let folks hear Pa play his banjo for a spell. And as there was a good chance Pa had strung the wire from town himself, he might not appreciate being told to get off the line. But by the 1910s, those undisciplined days had come to a close.

As the twentieth century wore on, improved technology, regulatory changes, lower rates, and competition would eventually restore some of what was lost in the decline of the people’s phone. But not all. I often sense in the internet hype of our own era a subliminal hope that maybe something lost is about to be set right. Of course the internet is not the telephone, and 2008 is not 1908. But if we did accept the parallel as predictive, what might we have to look forward to in the internet’s neo-Gilded Age? Perhaps a massive cull of tech companies and small internet service providers, followed by tut-tutting about their precarious finances and how they brought this on themselves. Then the defeat of municipal wireless initiatives and the regulatory entrenchment of monopoly or near monopoly. Complaints about “bandwidth hogs” and other antisocial elements might be used to delegitimize popular practices and justify tighter corporate control. Minor concessions to government by big telephone or cable companies would be described as magnanimous business statesmanship. We’d probably see widespread dismay, turning to eventual embarrassment, at all the failed utopian predictions of the 1990s and early 2000s. Finally, historical amnesia: histories of technology would be written to proclaim the inevitability of all these changes. Then someday around 2100, a history student looking for a dissertation topic might find a stack of books by Clay Shirky or Cory Doctorow and say, “I wonder if people ever really believed this crazy stuff about how empowering and creative the internet was going to be?”


  1. The final hypertext link is empty, which is perhaps fitting as it promises to send my browser headlong 92 years into the future.

  2. “The Millennial Pneumatic Tube”

    I’d buy that with full intent to read it, leave it in a pile of things to read, move it to a new apartment, then eventually a house, and then put it on a shelf in my living room because I think it looks cool.

  3. Great post! It always amuses/saddens me to see further examples of just how far the midwest populism has slid from theocratic socialism to theocratic plutocracy/kleptocracy… What’s The Matter With Kansas indeed…

    Where did you get that creepy phone-headed sheep pic from?

  4. I was thinking about this over night and I think there is a different dynamic here than what you describe with the phone.

    Mainly the social networking that happened with the phone was all home brewed and home run, where as the social networking of the internet has become big business and money is being made.

    Maybe if the ad revenue dies out you will see some slipage, but subscription based content will maintain at least internet 1.5 rather than a full slipage to 1.0.

  5. That’s a good point. There are substantial economic interests – like, say, Google – with a vision of the internet that is quite different from that of the big phone and cable providers.

    I don’t like entrusting everything to Google’s benevolence, which I think some people do, but I am glad they exist as a counterweight to the Verizons and ComCasts.

  6. Oh, parallel is definitely prediction. Very soon, the whole family will drop everything and race madly to the computer the instant they get an email. That is, until someone invents the email answering machine …

    This whole post is wonderful — your dissertation is going to be widely read both inside and outside of the ivy walls. Sweeeeet.

    What I like best is your “to blog or not to blog, that is the question.” I go through this constantly. The anxiety of not knowing my song well before I start singing. Of posting “spoilers” for my own conclusions. Of taking time to simplify and exaggerate when my time is better spent in the other direction. Exactly.

    I’m certain there are a lot of “author blogs” that discuss these questions, and I need pep talks like that. Thanks for sharing!

  7. This is one of my favourite posts ever, Rob. Very well done indeed!

    I should add (though you likely know this already) that the issue of “bandwith hogs” is both highly exaggerated and already being cited by precisely the same sort of groups you mention. The creation of a Tiered Internet, of sorts, seems almost inevitable at this point unless certain free enterprisers (or whatever we might call them) are able to beat the system by developing superior soft- and hardware to enable an open sort of world.

    The Internet we have right now is by no means ideal, but compared to some of the things that the major companies are proposing it’s sort of a paradise. I can see a future in which people give up on the thing entirely rather than put up with the restrictions placed upon them. You’re right to be wary of relying on the benevolence of something like Google, great though they currently are; however much they may be doing for us now, they are, at the bottom, a money-making enterprise. If conditions become less than congenial to the making of that money I fully expect them to change their tune entirely. We’ve already seen them acquiesece to demands from foreign governments, and it’s unsettling to admit that we also really have no idea what their whole “deal” actually is.

    Anyway, very interesting stuff. And that picture is just the tops.

    Also, just so you know (and on the off chance you’re inclined to participate), you’ve been tagged.

  8. Sounds like a fascinating project(s)!

    Do you know Jon Agar’s book “Constant Touch”? It’s about mobile phones… might be of interest…

  9. Thanks, all!
    Peter: Thanks especially for the tip re: Jon Agar’s book. I didn’t know of it before now – to my chagrin, as I think his book “The Government Machine” is terrific.

  10. Great post!

    Have I recommended Tom Keenan’s and Wendy Chun’s co-edited collection The Archeology of New Media to you 10 times yet? (I can’t remember if I’ve done it once.) She’s Canadjian, btw, and her book Control and Freedom rocks.

    But my real purpose for commenting is to see if you wanted to get together at the Falls or Fort Erie with the girls anytime this summer….

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  13. Thanks, Holly! I wish I could remember where that picture (of the telephone headed sheep) came from, but I grabbed it off the web years ago. Anyway, I have FINALLY gotten around to visiting and exploring Wonders and Marvels, which is just terrific. I’ve also linked to you on my somewhat unreliable blog-roll.

    all best,

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