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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.
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Geek Shakes Tiny Fist on Weblog. Dozens Bored. Film at Eleven.

(Originally published on my old LiveJournal.)

So Warren Ellis (tangent: new Planetary out! it’s a good ‘un!) enlisted a bunch of his friends to offer predictions, sermons, and manifestos for the new year. The photogenic model / writer / activiste / “erotonaut” / sycophants in Ellis’ posse (but they hate labels) replied mainly with lame Spider Jerusalem imitations. But Cory Doctorow had this gem, which I wish every computer geek would read and take to heart:

The last twenty years were about technology. The next twenty years are about policy. It’s about realizing that all the really hard problems — free expression, copyright, due process, social networking — may have technical dimensions, but they aren’t technical problems. The next twenty years are about using our technology to affirm, deny and rewrite our social contracts: all the grandiose visions of e-democracy, universal access to human knowledge and (God help us all) the Semantic Web, are dependent on changes in the law, in the policy, in the sticky, non-quantifiable elements of the world. We can’t solve them with technology: the best we can hope for is to use technology to enable the human interaction that will solve them. [more Chuck D]

If you grant him a little hyperbole (the policy choices of the last twenty years didn’t matter? the next twenty years won’t be about technology too? how can twenty years be “about” anything, anyway?), this message seems to me exactly right. In 2004 as in 1904, the technological is political. This happens to be one of the central arguments of my dissertation, so I hope you’ll forgive me a mildly hung-over rant.

The technological is political. That idea has two prongs. One, technologies are shaped above all by politics. By “political” I mean more than just elections and legislation (though those are important) I mean the exercise of power. New technologies don’t unfold by some inherent logic. There isn’t a natural or inevitable way that any given technology “wants” to be. It takes different shapes based on choices we make and battles we fight — or don’t. Two, every technology has real political effects. It confers power to some and robs the power of others. In other words, it matters. “I want my MP3” is hardly an inspiring banner to march under, I admit. And the world certainly seems to have bigger problems than electronic freedom. But what we have now is leverage. It will never again be as easy to shape the future of the internet as it will be in 2004. (It would have been easier still in 2003, or 2002 — you get the idea — but hey, spilt milk.) You all know that old chestnut about whether you would go back in time to kill Hitler if you could. Well, what if you could go back in time and make TV not suck so much? I’d do it in a second.

The upshot of those two prongs is that it’s our responsibility to make decisions about our technological environment and to push for things that matter. Decisions being made today about the kinds of topics Doctorow lists are determining whether all those “grandiose visions of e-democracy” will come true or whether we’re just building an omniscient shopping mall as pervasive as the Matrix (and as depressing as The Matrix: Reloaded).

Historians should refrain from making predictions, so instead I’ll just say “this has all happened before.” What kind of internet we’re going to have in 2024, what kind of media ownership, what kind of social-technical infrastructure — the answers to these questions aren’t predetermined, and they won’t be decided by any “natural” evolution of technology. The best systems, alas, don’t always rise to the top. Because there is no objective “best,” just “best in the eyes of who.” These questions won’t be decided by consumers either. At least I hope not, because, by definition, the only real choice consumers make is to consume. These questions will be decided by politics, which is to say, by the exercise of power.

Look into the future. Wave. The children of 2024 are looking back at us and holding us responsible for the internet we bequeathed them. Is the new boss the same as the old boss? Has the crazy science fiction world of everything that could be (like Doctorow’s own utopia of Disneyworld without the Disney Corp. — it’s easy to see the appeal but hard to imagine how we’d get there) been chipped down to into something boring and predictable? And are people being trained to think that that outcome was inevitable all along? If some combination of elitist disdain for politics and misguided libertarianism causes the geeks of the world to drop the ball, I’m sending a Terminator back from the future to bitch slap every one of us.