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Is everything old new again? Learning from the history of technology

Peter Decherney, Nathan Ensmenger, and Christopher S. Yoo recently published an article, Are Those Who Ignore History Doomed to Repeat it?, on Tim Wu‘s book, The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires.

By Kristopher A. Nelson in

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Peter Decherney, Nathan Ensmenger, and Christopher S. Yoo recently published an article, Are Those Who Ignore History Doomed to Repeat it?, on Tim Wu‘s book, The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires. Wu argues that communications technologies follow “the Cycle,” beginning as open systems, only to be closed by corporate moguls — and then re-opening again as the Cycle starts anew after a new innovation emerges. Decherney, Ensmenger, and Yoo do not completely reject Wu’s thesis, but they do argue that Wu’s focus on individual actors neglects the complexities of other market players (advertisers, for example), government agencies, and other supply- and demand-side actors.

Wu’s thesis rests on the powerful idea that we can improve our future by learning from the past, an approach that is core to my own historical focus on the telegraph in the nineteenth century — and the lessons that it can teach us about current and future technologies like the Internet.

Wu’s vision of influential corporate moguls whose visionary approaches unify and then close communications networks is seductive in the same way that our vision of a Romantic author is (Americans especially seem to cling to this idealistic notion). For example, it’s tempting, but equally misleading, to view Star Wars as the work of George Lucas, forgetting — or eliding — the number of other figures who played major or minor roles in its creation and production. The same is true of any technological development.

Decheney, et al. also make the convincing argument that, even if we focus only on larger-than-life individuals (Alexander Graham Bell, former AT&T President Theodore Vail, financier J.P. Morgan, and so on), we have to take account of visionary individuals who have pushed for openness instead: in the Internet age, that includes Richard Stallman and Vint Cert. They write:

Clearly, bold leadership was not the exclusive province of the established corporate interests.

Many other have tried for unified historical approaches, and visionary works like Wu’s are powerful and useful for understanding the past. However, write Decheney, et al.:

History is notoriously untidy, and all too often real-world facts stubbornly refuse to conform to what would otherwise be a terrific story.

Large, sweeping accounts of historical development give a readily graspable broad picture, and (hopefully) provide useful guidance, at least on large-scale decision-making. But this broad guidance can be misleading, if seductive to policmakers seeking “simple policy inferences” that can be readily employed and discussed without needing a strong understanding of the underlying concepts and factors. But these “sweeping and categorical” understandings can produce distored perspectives by politicos — think of former Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens‘ statement:

The internet is not a big truck. It’s a series of tubes.

Adding complexity can make decisionmaking more, well, complex, but it can also “provide a better foundation for sound public policy.” That, hopefully, is what I will be producing with my work on privacy and the telegraph in the nineteenth century.