Title: Network Nation: Inventing American Telecommunications
Author: Richard John
Categories: Business, Communications, Technology, Political Economy, Gilded Age, Market
Place: United States
Time Period: 1840-1920
John examines the relationship of the political economy to communications (the "structuring presence of the state" on media), arguing that things like policy played just as important a role as technological innovation or market incentives. John explicitly tackles technological determinism by demonstrating that technology of the telegraph and telephone were in place for years before they were widely adopted, and that you have to look at the prevailing political economy to understand why this was the case. He periodizes 1840-1920 as the second communications revolution by examining the telegraph and the telephone (and particularly Western Union and Bell Company). In particular he looks at the shift in telecommunications from a speciality service for an exclusive clientele towards a mass, public service. During the early years of establishing a network, it often only granted access to a tiny portion of the American public (ex. businessmen using the telegraph to transmit commercial information). But John charts the expansion of what the broader public saw as having a right to access, which grows to include commercial information, not just news, by the late 19th century.
During this period he outlines a struggle between two viewpoints on political economy. First, beginning in the 1840s the prevailing system of federal control over communications (primarily the post) came under fire by those advocating for individual states to encourage competition between private companies. This viewpoint saw the political economy in terms of equal rights and competition that needed to be protected from government-granted special privileges. Second, beginning in the 1880s the "consolidationists" argued for corporations to be consolidated and centralized into natural monopolies that were more in line with public utilities, regulated by the state in an attempt to out the great evil of inefficiency that they thought was bred by competition. In doing so the consolidationists shifted the debate away from battles over special privilege and equality towards a movement for more efficiency in order to serve the public good (Progressive strand).
John also charts the ongoing thread of antimonopolism, first against federal ownership of communications during initial years of telegraph in the 1840s and 1850s (earlier than other historians place antimonoplism, typically in 1870s), and later against the consolidation of corporations into monopolies in Gilded Age. This strand took many different forms, and was often co-opted by monopolists - ex. Jay Gould justifying his takeover of Western Union in 1881. By the Progressive Era, anti-monopolists were paradoxically on the defensive in the realm of communications. Companies like Bell Company argued against antimonopolists by saying that consolidation and monopolies was the best way for them to ensure an efficient access to a public good (very Progressive model), and that competition actually bred inefficiency and waste. Finally, John argues that anti-government backlash during and after World War I marked a shift back towards embracing privately-owned corporations as the hallmark of modern corporate management.
Key Themes and Concepts
- Shift in telegraph and telephone from a specialty service for a wealthy clientele (ex. the "rich man's mail") to a more Progressive viewpoint of a mass public service
- Two competing visions of political economy:
1. View that individual states should encourage competition between private companies (begins in 1840s)
2. Consolidationists want corporations to be organized into well-run natural monopolies regulated by the state (like public utilities)
- Anti-monopolism has roots much earlier (1840s spurred on by debates over telegraph)
- Anti-monopolism used and co-opted by many different people - ex. Jay Gould justifying his takeover of Western Union in 1881 as breaking up a monopoly.
- Attacks on anti-monopolists during Progressive era (turn of the century), as point of attack shifts from monopolies to that of inefficiency - ex. Bell Company argued that their monopoly led to a public good by streamlining efficiency in the absence of competition
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries by Cameron Blevins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.