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How America Got On-Line: Politics, Markets, and the Revolution in Telecommunications

Author(s):Stone, Alan
Reviewer(s):Tympas, Aristotle

Published by and EH.Net (September, 1998)

Alan Stone. How America Got On-Line: Politics, Markets, and the Revolution

in Telecommunications. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E.

Sharpe, 1997. xiii + 241 pp. Bibliographical references and index. $62.95

(cloth), ISBN 1-56324-576

-0; $23.95 (paper), ISBN 1-56324-577-9.

Reviewed for H-Business and EH.Net by Aristotle Tympas, Georgia Institute of


Accommodating more than a century of telecommunications history in a little

over two hundred pages represents a formidable challenge. Aware of the fact

that an adequate response to this challenge involves more than one historical

subdiscipline, Alan Stone introduces his work as an interdisciplinary account,

one that seeks to incorporate technological,

social, business,

legal, and political history. For the author of How America Got

On-Line, the Archimedean point of social interpretation in this

interdisciplinary endeavor is to be retrieved by considering the state of

technology at any time. Yet, as

he himself acknowledges, the technological and the social are

“intermixed,” shaping each other through their interaction (p.

12). Perhaps in order to break this interpretative circle, the author relies

so heavily on the concept of “public philosophy,”

a concept borrowed by Walter Lippman in order to represent the most central

features of a society. A public philosophy is for society what a Kuhnian

paradigm is for science: normally invisible in politics, it becomes visible

when it is “frontally challenged” (p. 11). Changes in telecommunications came

along with changes in public philosophy. Accordingly, as explained in the

introductory chapter, the book follows a historical scheme formed by three

events: the placement of a natural monopoly in U.S. telecommunications, the

displacement of this monopoly through a gradual challenge to the public

philosophy that supported it, and, finally, the replacement of this natural

monopoly on the grounds of a new public philosophy, one that emphasizes

regulated com petition.

A great part of the book follows this placement/displacement/replacement scheme

by considering changes in the configuration of two interacting institutional


Standing on the one front of this institutional configuration,

representing the private, the market, and the business firm, was the

telecommunications firm AT&T. The book includes chapters about AT&T’s

placement in the position of a natural monopoly through the absorption of most

other telephony firms, its gradual displacement from this position, and its

replacement by a number of telecommunications firms which are now frantically

engaged in forming international institutional alliances. On the other front

of this institutional configuration,

representing the public, the state, and the government, stands the regulatory,

the judicial, and the legislative apparatuses of the state. In this part of

his book, Stone focuses on telephony. Other telecommunications technologies,

most notably radio and television, are discussed only from

the perspective of how they challenged telephony to defend its boundaries, thus

presenting telephony with what Stone calls “boundary issues.”

The rest of the book portrays a more complicated historical scheme. Radios and

televisions, and, more recently,

the networks of massively produced personal computers linked to form the

Internet) are no longer treated as merely presenting us with boundary issues.

In Stone’s view, the previously fragmented telecommunications markets, formed

as they were around distinguishable telecommunications technologies, have

recently converged. He moves on to endorse the term “hypercommunication”

in order to grasp what he perceives to be the disappearance of boundaries

between telecommunication technologies and, in addition, between national

telecommunications markets. The concluding chapter reads more like a

historically informed policy analysis than history. The author here

concentrates on two policy prescriptions. First, given the added complexity

brought about by hypercommunication, any generalization is even riskier.

Second, there is no good reason to find that the transition from communication

to hypercommunication means that the intervening role of the state is now


Alan Stone seems to be at his best when

he retrieves and interprets the crucial conceptions contained in the


judicial, and legislative decisions that shaped the course of U.S.

telecommunications. He convinces you that in the context of telecommunications

policy, private or public,

“niceties of definitional hairsplitting” were indeed “potentionally worth

billion of dollars” (p. 157). How America Got On-Line could be of

specific educational value to telecommunications policy makers, regardless of

whether they come from a public or from a private perspective. Alan Stone has

given us an insightful historical account of the state-market and

government-firm interactions that were indispensable for capitalist success in

American telecommunications. As such, it could also be of considerable

educational value to those generally interested in knowing the specific

institutional configurations that sustained capitalism as the dominant social

relationship of organizing private interests into a public interest.

Perhaps the professional historian would have liked the author to be clearer

as to what is the revolution in telecommunications under consideration. Was

there a revolution in the transition from some unnamed telecommunications

technique to telephony? Was there a revolution in the

transition from natural monopoly in telephony to regulated competition? Was

there a revolution in the transition from communication to hypercommunication?

This points to the more general issue of proper historical periodization, a

prerequisite for historical specificity. Even if we follow Stone in ignoring

the issue of the distinction between ancient and modern telecommunications, we

cannot assume that modern telecommunications starts with telephony. Stone

documents well how radio and television broad casting accounted for a

conception of telecommunications that contrasted to the point-to-point

conception of telecommunications by telephone.

Necessary as it is to retrieve this contrast, it is hardly sufficient to

interpret it in isolation from other, antecedent and more lasting, similar

contrasts in telecommunications.

Historians of technology have pointed out that the telegraph and the telephone

are not the first technology of modern telecommunications (See, e.g., Steven

Lubar, Infoculture: The Smithsonian Book of Information Age Inventions,

Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1993). For example, we can observe that

the radio-television vs. telephone contrast in telecommunications was

structurally similar to the contrast between telecommunications as provided by

the newspaper and telecommunications by a letter which was carried by the

post-office from one point to another. Intellectual historians have suggested

that the various technologies of transportation,

from the canal to the railway were also

perceived as bringing about revolutions in telecommunication (Armand

Mattelart, The Invention of Communication, University of Minnesota


Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1996). Stone neglects them, even though he mentions in

passim that in its battle against AT&T, MCI employed conceptions of

telecommunications that were reminiscent of arguments employed in the context

of the regulation of the railways. Finally, one is unclear as to whether the

history of telecommunications was the historical rule or the

historical exception. Could it be that the transition from a natural

telecommunications monopoly to regulated telecommunications competition (from

communication to hypercommunication) was one particular instance of the more

general transition from fordism to post-fordism (from mass production to

flexible production as a mode of capitalist accumulation)?

The professional political theorist would perhaps be more pleased with some

additional emphasis on conceptual precision.

Stone assumes that the terms

public, state, and government can be employed interchangeably. He assumes the

same for the terms private, market, and business firm. On the grounds of these

assumptions, he frequently feels entitled to contrast any of the terms of the

first set with any

of the concepts of the second set. His argument could be clearer by

respecting the hierarchy of concepts: the public, the state, and the government

(or the private, the market, and the business firm) refer to three different

orders of abstraction (from

the social). By disrespecting this hierarchy, Stone risks contradicting his

major argument by misrepresenting antagonistic private perspectives on what

constitutes a public perspective (a private vs. public issue) as if they had to

do with an a priori antagonism between the state and the private (a private


state issue).

Subject(s):History of Technology, including Technological Change
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):General or Comparative