Sunday, September 28, 2008

Communication and Empire, Part II

I find this book getting more dense as I progress through it, and my ability to distinguish company from company and robber baron from robber baron is clearly slipping. That said, some thoughts . . .

Chapter 6 tells us that the cost of cable transmission eventually became too much to bear. Spurred, in part at least, by the Canadians and the news agencies, the cable companies eventually agreed to a reduced-rate system for off-peak hours. (Think "free nights and weekends," all you cell phone junkies.") But what looked like a good deal eventually showed itself to be another coup for the cable companies. Even the reduced rates were quite high, and the requirement for normal language prevented the use of code to reduce the per-message cost. Meanwhile, the Cable-as-Empire game played out differently in two different arenas. In South America, where Americans worried that European monopolies were helping to foster negative views of the good ol' US of A, the Western Telegraph Company began to emerge as the dominate player. At the same time in Asia, Japan was throwing off (at least some of) the imperialist yoke by laying its own cable to Russia, Korea, Taiwan and China. (It is probably not coincidence that Japan already had taken possession of Korea and Taiwan, was about to wreck most of the Russian Pacific navy, and was just a couple decades from full-scale invasion of China.)

Chapter 7 beings to free us from the constraints of wires, discussing the advent of radio (wireless) technology. I found particularly interesting the "law of suppression of radical potential" (p. 235) and the argument that France and England were so heavily invested in cable companies that they were slow to embrace wireless, while relatively unencumbered Germany and the US were more free to experiment with the new medium. (One could think of this theory in relation to many modern technologies.) In fact, the US soon embarked on a mission to wirelessly link the entire country. The wireless link from Hawai'i to San Francisco was able to offer the press a rate 1/8th of the cable rate, and soon there was a clamor for Atlantic wireless. The onset of World War I further increased the demand for wireless communication - unlike cables, wires could not be severed to prevent the enemy from communicating. As the imperial powers on each side began to use wireless to disseminate propaganda, the censoring of news reports began to force a realignment of the agreements between news agencies, resulting in a bigger role for The Associated Press in serving and covering Latin America (previously served by European agencies). At home, the Navy was busy beating down American Marconi (and stealing their assets) while working to support an American-owned wirelss company.

Chapter 8 chronicles the arrival of the U.S. as the central player in international communications (and banking and business and everything else) after WWI. US policymakers were eager to use wireless to solidify and expand American influence at a time when US foreign policy was essentially imperial. The World Communication Conference of 1919 was meant to bring nations together in strategizing for this new era; instead, old concerns (cable monopolies, nationalist interests, etc.) resulted in a conference as ineffectual as the League of Nations (the politics of which also helped criple the conference).

I'm going to have to leave it there for now (hopefully I'll get to Chapters 9 and 10 later). It's all starting to blend together.

1 comment:

Dale said...

It was mentioned in class that the conclusion actually raises as many or more interesting ideas than the rest of the work. I felt, in addition, that the questions the authors asked demanded totally different research - of societies, or media content - than the book covered. For example, the authors say they want to further the study of the impact on and the interaction of civilizations with the rise of global communications. Yet they study companies, not people. They mention the blame directed at the press and global communications for the short but significant economic depression in South America in 1873 and acknowledge in the conclusion that media in economy is rarely addressed. Yet this study is guilty of the same omission. Surprisingly, in studying companies, they also miss an analysis of what conglomerated control and consolidated power mean for media and international communications. While the conclusion raised interesting issues, a more relevant approach might ask questions that this research could answer: (How) has global media control changed from its conception to today? (How) does media control and the desires/pressures (economic or otherwise) of communications companies affect the use/development of communication networks? The text raised these issues, but the conclusion failed to analyze them, instead presenting new ideas this research could not address. That approach aids further research, but doesn't promote the relevance of this project.