Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Communications & Empire first half Summary

Communications and Empire traces the global spread of telegraph technology. International issues arose immediately in the 1830s as Western Europe found a sudden need for international law governing privacy, state secrets, business practice, etc. The US also had the means to develop its own telegraph system and by the 1860s cable, after a few unsuccessful tries, had crossed the Atlantic. With that success and the fortuitous conglomeration of cable manufacturing in England, the British Empire – aided by Europe – expanded telegraph to India and within Egypt. By 1870, the nationalization of the British telegraph system was complete and the major world powers had reached general agreements on international law, permitting a rapid global expansion of the communication network. Despite minor setbacks, China, Japan, Latin and South America, and the Caribbean were fully linked to a global telegraph network by the end of the decade, at which point the European powers divided their influence within Africa and proceeded to expand the network there as well.

Throughout, there is much discussion of how the influx of European and American communications systems affected the rest of the world. European expertise in operating the telegraph and in enforcing social stability meant dominance of Persia and colonization of Egypt. China and the Ottoman Empire made valiant, but ultimately unsuccessful, efforts at reforms to integrate the new technology (and its accompanying ties to European and American economies, politics and power) while maintaining strong national sovereignty. Japan, with a later connection to global communications and a stronger political structure, was more successful. Africa entered the global network with the rise of colonial empires’ national security needs, and Latin and South America and the Caribbean with the rise of European and American economic interest.

With a great many company names evidencing a phenomenal amount of research, Winseck and Pike demonstrate that, wherever the telegraph system emerged, it was immediately brought under oligopoly; then cartel; and, in the end, effective monopoly control with John Pender running the show and state-run systems helping out. This led, by the early 1900s, to reformation proposals that included cheaper rates, more nationalistic control of each state’s lines and more competition for the reigning cartels.


richard said...

Interesting book so far. I wish the authors were a little stronger in their analytic framing of their argument (particularly at the beginning and end of each chapter). They are describing some complex relations between private companies, national governments, and multinational markets and law. I'm reading the basic thesis as such: the relationship between empire (or imperialism) and global communications in the latter 19th/early 20th century was rather weak compared with post-WWII. De-regulated markets and laissez-faire economic perspectives encouraged rapid growth and extension with little governmental control (although governments were certainly players in all this). But I'm afraid I'm still not grasping the analytic critique of this historic account quite yet. Help!?!

The parallels with past 30 years are striking on at least two accounts. First, the free trade conditions of the global market as I've already mentioned. The period of Fordism between WWII and the late 1970s interrupted this to a large degree, but we seem to have returned to this again (i.e. neoliberalization). Secondly, the debates about telegraph ownership, regulation, access, etc are very similar to those surrounding the Internet today (net neutrality, consolidation of companies, state vs. public interests, etc). So I hope there are lessons that we can take away from this history to apply to today's decisions surrounding the world wide web?

Brenton said...

I agree that Winseck and Pike (1-5) is an interesting read, however it assumes allot of the reader. After the first few chapters it was useful to transition to the optional readings (DeBoff and Downey) in order to situate the social-culture role of telegraphy. This in turn made subsequent chapters easier to digest. W & P did succeeded in illustrating several points for me; 1. space- time compression 2. hegemonic control. One of the issues I have struggled with, in geography, is the space - time concept. The first half of the readings provided much in conceptualizing how telegraphic communication radically altered the transfer of information. The establishment of cables in South American and Caribbean during the 1860' s – 1890's was bit paradoxical to me. On one hand we have this new “advanced” technology while on the other these countries still clung to “primitive” practices as slavery still exits in Brazil (not ending until 1890) and Cuba ( 1886). It seems like an odd juxtaposition to me.