Technologies without Boundaries: on Telecommunications in a Global Age  

Before his death in 1984, Ithiel de sola Pool was one of the most highly regarded writers on the cultural significance and impact of modern technology; he was also an innovator in research, having been a pioneer in the application of computer modelling to political theory. Technologies without Boundaries has been put together and edited by Eli Noam, from material intended by Pool to be a continuation to his widely admired Technologies of Freedom. Where the earlier book focused on the legal aspects of communications, this one is concerned almost exclusively with the spread, internationalization and direction of what is called the information or communication or second industrial revolution.

Pool starts with the printing press, by approvingly summarizing Elizabeth Eisenstein’s analysis of the social changes that followed its introduction. Thereafter he stays on this side of the invention of telegraphy; and though many points relating to censorship, libertarianism, and codification of the law seem to be ones of particular interest to him, his aim is not to produce the sort of cultural history written by Eisenstein, but to focus rather on the innumerable tradeoffs and circularities between technological innovations and their cultural materialization in the context of material scarcity (real as well as apparent), adoption of engineering standards and protocols, government regulation, and decisions on costing and profit analysis used by the various telecommunication industries. Thus, an early chapter introducing the new technologies moves quickly and with expository skill from the difference between digital and analogue signals through the transmission media of wire networks, ratio transmission, coaxial cable, optical fibers, satellites to computer message processing, all the time with the emphasis on questions of national and international agreements, overcrowding, profitability and comparative costs.

On the basis of this kind of outlook – that of a technically knowledgable, enlightened, culturally alert administrator – Pool constructs his story of the social implications of modern electronic communication. A story that tells how

the falling cost of electronic logic supports the trend towards individualization. The growing abundance of bandwidth in transmission and better management of the electromagnetic spectrum creates the technical opportunities for small-group communication. Satellites and fiber links are making costs more distance-insensitive… (and) promoting the movement of business and cultural life from overcrowded cities to exurbia.

The result is a fascinating mix of telling social anecdote, historical detail and techno-information that reads like a no-nonsense, cost-and-budget domestication of McLuhan’s wild presentiments of mechanical marriage and global villagery. Of course, a version of the apocalypse McLuhan was so frantic about in 1964 is now upon us. And if it doesn’t feel that way (though to some, like Jean Baudrillard, it does) that is partly because the apocalypse is a future tense and partly because the global village is immersed in computer logic in ways unforeseen by McLuhan. And unforeseeable by us: as Pool points out, the world telecommunication network, the most complex machine created by mankind, is constantly changing and as yet virtually unmapped.

Pool’s ability to put life and flair into writing about issues which in other hands would be unreadable except to experts is impressive and informative – I was delighted to learn that, “Lacking a good French name for its devices, IBM turned to Prof. J. Perret of the Sorbonne, who suggested the name ‘ordinateur’. That was a theological word which had fallen into desuetude for six centuries. ‘God was the great ordinateur of the world; that is to say the one who made it orderly according to plan.’” God was never put more explicitly into the machine.

Against the many virtues of Pool’s book, however, there is an unwelcome political shallowness that is not adequate to the issues of cultural transmission, replication and hegemony that thread through any process of “communication”. To say, for example, that the Americanization of global culture is simply the result of American commerce having discovered what “world cultural tastes actually are” displays an essentialism that is breathtakingly superficial. Throughout the book, conceived after all in the early 1980s, one can sense a complicity with, if not direct approval of the attack on controls and the deregulative frenzy of the Reagan administration. The present-day legacy of that frenzy, ranging from the huge Savings and Loan debacle to the lifting of advertising restrictions on children’s television and the saturation of the networks by commercials, makes it difficult to rest easy with Pool’s boundary-free vision of telecommunicational abundance.

TLS February 22, 1991

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