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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.
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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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Two Turntables and a Cactus Thorn

Gloria Swanson drops the needle.

This made me think of my good buddy Gamma Fodder, who is DJing his first real club gig in Toronto this week. It’s a magazine article on messing with the phonograph from 1917. Scratching and needle-dropping sixty years before Grandmaster Flash? “The street finds its own uses for technology,” indeed.
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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.

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Philo Philes

(Originally published on my old LiveJournal.)

I’m reading and enjoying Glen Gold’s Carter Beats The Devil. It’s a novel about the adventures of a Houdini-style illusionist in the 1910s and 1920s, who gets mixed up with the mysterious death of Warren Harding, Yale’s Skull and Bones society, and the fight for control of television. It’s in much the same vein as Kavalier & Clay, and if it’s only, say, 75% as good, that’s hardly a stinging criticism.

The book gets extra points from me because one of the key supporting characters is the real life Philo T. Farnsworth. Philo Farnsworth was an earnest, gawky farm boy born in an honest-to-gosh log cabin near Beaver City, Utah in 1906. He grew up on a potato farm in Idaho, rode to high school on horseback, and never went to college. When he was nineteen, he pretty much invented electronic television.

The invention of television is a messy, complicated story, and it’s almost impossible to pick one single “Inventor of Television” out of the melee of mad Scots and visionary Russians and guys in basements in Cleveland who all had a hand in TV’s birth, but Philo is a definite contender. He was the first to use a scanning electron beam to create a picture. All previous efforts were mechanical, and usually involved spinning giant wooden disks. (Lovers of outre steampunk technology take note.)

Philo’s story is great—he was just this “aw shucks” milk-drinking Mormon kid who got the idea for the parallel scanning lines of the electronic picture tube while tilling the furrows of his family’s potato farm. He married his high school sweetheart at age 19 and said to her on their wedding night, “Pemmie, I have to tell you. There’s another woman in my life. Her name is Television.”

The whole thing sounds like a made up Boy Inventor story—Tom Swift and His Electronic Picto-Vision! In fact, I often think it should have been one. It could have been serialized in Chum Magazine in the 1940s, or made into a Disney double feature with Davy Crockett, called “The Boy Who Invented Television.” Young Philo would have made a great 1950s TV character. He could have worked with the Pinkertons maybe, having wild adventures across the West with his best girl Pemmie at his side, doing battle with his ingenious electrical inventions against the top-hatted fat cats of the evil Radio Trust.

About five years ago, I wrote the script for a comic book called “Channel Ocho,” about two crypto-TV-archaeologists that searched for mythical “lost” TV shows. Sort of a Planetary meets Nick-at-Nite kinda thing. The hero and his nemesis were named Farnsworth and Zworykin, after Philo and his main rival. Maybe I should dig that puppy out of mothballs.

Alas, in real life, the top-hatted fat cats of the evil Radio Trust (aka David Sarnoff and RCA) screwed Philo over pretty darn good. He never got the recognition he deserved, and though RCA eventually paid him off for the patents they squeezed out of him, he spent much of his life bitter and unhappy about how he and his great invention had been misused.

There’s a couple of books about Philo out now: The Last Lone Inventor, by Evan Schwartz, and The Boy Genius and the Mogul, by Daniel Stashower. There’s also this tribute site with the excellent URL farnovision.com. All of them basically follow the romantic “noble-lone-inventor-versus-greedy-fat-cats” model. But Malcolm Gladwell wrote an interesting New Yorker column (saying “interesting Malcolm Gladwell column” is usually redundant, IMHO) about Philo’s story, turning the model on his head. Gladwell says the story exposes the value of big corporations, and points out how much happier Philo’s life would have been if he’d only worked with RCA rather than tried to go it alone. I don’t know. It’s one thing to say Philo was naïve and stubborn and that he paid dearly for trying to fight the big boys. It’s another thing to say that this is therefore how things ought to be.

But anyway. Mad props to Philo T. That’s all I really wanted to say.