By Robert MacDougall
It may be the networks I belong to and the feeds I follow, but—as a guy whose main interests are 19th-century pseudoscience, the history of the telephone, and WKRP in Cincinnati—I am often surprised by how much of the social media in my streams is devoted to tech industry news and speculation. Will consumers embrace the iWatch? Will they give up cable for Netflix? Is Twitter dying? And what, pray tell, does Elon Musk have to say?
As a historian of communication, I often say that changes in media turn us all into historians of communication, if only briefly. Until the novelty of a new tool fades, we are all Marshall McLuhans, conscious of the media we use and curious about its impact. But despite all the tweets about Twitter, the blog posts about blogging, the books about the decline of books, there is something lacking in all this conversation, and it has to do with a refusal to see the real forces at work. We valorize consumer agency and ignore the extent to which our communications world is constructed by politics and regulation.
I come to these thoughts through my work on the early history of the telephone, and my book, The People’s Network: The Political Economy of the Telephone in the Gilded Age. That book tells the story of the telephone—the high-tech, new media, telecommunications revolution of its day—from the 1870s through the 1920s, years that saw the rise of the Bell / AT&T monopoly but also a fierce battle, now largely forgotten, for a more democratic, decentralized vision of communications. The Bell System dominated telecommunications in Canada and the United States for most of the 20th century, but its monopoly was not inevitable. In the decades around 1900, ordinary people—farmers, doctors, mechanics, and many more—established tens of thousands of independent telephone systems, stringing their own wires to bring a new technology to the people. They called themselves the independent telephone movement.
Think of that! We fret about our cell phone bills and whether or not Google is making us stupid. One hundred years ago, tens of thousands of regular people just went ahead and built their own communication networks.
The independents were animated by their vision of a “telephone for the people,” a vision that was both self-serving and sincere. They saw communication as a democratizing force and an instrument for defending the autonomy of local communities against the new nation-spanning corporations of their day. While AT& T built a continent-spanning long distance network to serve the needs of big business, the independents built small but dense networks that connected middle-class users to the farms and villages in their immediate hinterlands.
The independent telephone movement was leaderless and fractious, a messy mix of farmers’ cooperatives, quasi-municipal systems, and for-profit businesses. Ultimately, it lost its battle with nation-spanning capital—lost it, primarily, on the fields of state and federal regulation. Yet the independents rivaled the Bell monopoly for a time, and represented a genuine alternative: an attempt to build a communications infrastructure that was locally-oriented, that prized access over efficiency, and that was owned and operated by the people it served.
If we care about democratic communications today, what lessons can we take from the history of the independent telephone movement? It is not hard to see parallels between the legal and commercial battles of the early 20th century and developments today: the fight to preserve net neutrality, the rise and apparent fall of municipal wifi, Bell Canada’s current efforts to block competition in broadband internet service.
But instead of constructing a one-to-one analogy between history and some current event, I’d rather take from the story of independent telephony a very simple, general lesson about how we ought to talk and think about our communication networks in an era of rapid technological and commercial change. And that is this: we routinely overestimate the power and agency of the consumer and the market. We routinely underestimate the importance of politics and regulation, at even the local scale.
Observers in the 1890s and early 1900s did exactly the same thing. Do farmers want telephones? Do French Canadians? (The president of Bell Canada was convinced they did not.) Do people want flat rates or do they prefer to pay by the call? Everyone expected consumers—“the market”—to choose between options, to reveal the “natural” form that new technologies were to take. Yet I cannot think of a single moment in the early history of telephony where consumers declared an unambiguous preference for one state of affairs over another, without intervention from government, the courts, or some political force. Yes, the market is powerful, but its power is mindless—one thing the invisible hand is not very good at, ironically, is deciding.
The early telephone industry was local in orientation. As the telephone spread, very different patterns emerged in different regions and communities. People inevitably attributed these patterns to the market or to consumer choice. In Indiana, where by 1905 there was one telephone for every twelve people, the experts said “clearly, farmers want telephones.” In Ontario, where there was only one telephone for every ninety people, they said, “clearly, farmers don’t want telephones.” Even when their attention was drawn to such differences, experts would say, “I wonder why Indiana farmers are so much more talkative than farmers in Ontario?”
But the farmers were not different. Municipal bylaws, regulatory decisions, patent suits, and corporate strategies responding to all those political choices—that is what produced such different outcomes. And those deep structures and strategies, not individual consumers, determined the eventual winners and losers in the telephone fight.
Why do we overestimate the power of the consumer and the ability of the market to make decisions? Probably because it flatters us. Also, we are encouraged to do so by the corporate interests this rhetoric serves. Certainly, the Bell System embraced a rhetoric of consumer empowerment at precisely the moment that real alternatives to its monopoly were being destroyed. But most of all, the market gives everyone plausible deniability. It makes outcomes seem inevitable and natural.
The telephone appeared to be a natural monopoly in Central Canada and New England. Competition appeared inevitable in the American Midwest. But monopoly is never “natural” and free market competition is never truly “free”. Both are political outcomes, the result of legal, regulatory, and political contests and processes and contests.
The fight for the telephone one hundred years ago mattered, and it matters today, because it was never just a fight for the telephone—it was an argument about how the economy and society ought to be organized. People talked about the telephone as a concrete way of talking about profound but abstract changes in the economy, the same way we talk about “the internet” today as a means of talking about (or not talking about) the effects of globalization, of late capitalism, the commodification of all things.
The media we use to communicate has a powerful effect on how we perceive the world. They shape our sense of what is natural, what is valuable, what ought to be free. Who talks to whom? What networks are we part of? At what scale can we best construct a prosperous society, a democratic society, a just society? These were burning questions a century ago, and they are no less relevant today. And these are profoundly political questions, which must be the subject of political dialogue and debate. The market cannot decide for us. If we abdicate choice to the market—which really means abdicating choice to the most powerful and effective lobbyists—we will not like what it decides.
Rob MacDougall is an associate professor of history at the University of Western Ontario and the author of The People’s Network: The Political Economy of the Telephone in the Gilded Age (University of Pennsylvania, 2014). He blogs at www.robmacdougall.org and podcasts at www.holdmyorderterribledresser.com.