The Invisible Weapon: Telecommunications and International Politics 1851-1945

Daniel R. Headrick

In the last decade a new generation of American media historians has undertaken a series of intellectual and social histories of electric media in industrial America. Authors in this sub-genre include: Daniel Czitrom, Rosalind William, Stephen Kern, James Beniger, James Carey, Carolyn Marvin--and most recently Daniel Headrick. Together they shed light on a range of themes from geohistorical matters of political economy to ethnographic aspects of local cultures.

Researchers in this sub-genre of media history have rejected the traditional territory of mass media studies as a frame of reference for their work, in favour of a framework delimited by labels such as information technologies, point-to-point media, or as in Marvin's case, the proto-mass media. The standard time-scale for mass media histories has also been extended back to the 1840s to incorporate the study of the land and ocean telegraph, electric light, telephone, and pre-broadcast radio, and electro-mechanical forerunners to the electronic computer.

Historians of point-to-point media are just one of many "schools" that have been breaking away from mass media to communication or cultural studies, Carey points out. And Marvin notes: "For media historians, the phenomenon of twentieth-century electronic mass media lies like a great whale across the terrain of our intellectual concern...it has rendered invisible important aspects of electric media history...." Headrick picks up this theme, writing that "Of the two forms of communications, broadcast and point-to-point, the broadcast or mass media have captured the most attention of communication scholars." He adds that with few exceptions the "cultural aspects of point-to-point communications have yet to be studied" (p. 9). Having made this point, Headrick ironically fails to deliver a recognizable cultural history, serving up instead an old-style military and diplomatic history of pre-World War II international telecommunications.

Headrick's cultural history is a far cry from the intensely local and idiographic research pursued by cultural historians, who reconstruct narratives depicting "the way ordinary people made sense of the world," in their studies of carnivals, cat massacres, and religious trials. Based on the disparity between the history produced by Headrick and cultural historians proper it is tempting to dismiss his work on the basis of it being out of step with current historical fashion. Yet, we might also ask whether cultural history has the scope to handle a history of international communications. By definition the "locale" of this field is geo-historical in scope, born and raised in a den of politics, diplomacy, and military affairs. In addition, a widespread critique of Geertzian local knowledge and local history has emerged from the disciplines of history and anthropology. Some argue that local and global perspectives somehow should be integrated.

This type of contextualist sentiment has surfaced in the past when empirical approaches attained the high ground. In the 1950s, C. Wright Mills directed a similar critique against the quantitative, abstracted empiricism popular in postwar American social science. In the 1980s, Joshua Meyrowitz attempted to graft the micro-sociology of Erving Goffman onto the grand poetic critiques of Marshall McLuhan in his history of postwar mass media. Each approach had large blind spots attended to by their synthesis (a static situational sociology and a dynamic theory of the relationship between new media and social change).

The current critique is directed primarily against the qualitative empiricism of interpretive anthropology in the Geertzian tradition. There is no doubt that relevant cultural histories could be spun out of the smallest cultural practices in these fields. But social and cultural history has long been vulnerable to the charge (voiced by Ronald Walters in 1980) that it "resemble[s] less a coherent picture than a collection of dots needing to be connected." Can we really expect an historical method which produces random cultural snapshots to furnish us with a coherent history of international communications?

The intellectual ammunition that would legitimate his global cultural history is readily available, yet Headrick has ignored entirely the situational or local level of his project. Therefore, in a field which cries out for an experimental synthesis of the local and the global, Headrick has missed an opportunity to carry out some pioneering work. Like Beniger and Kern, Headrick also lays himself open to being branded as a practitioner of what Carolyn Marvin calls the "artifactual approach" to the history of electric media. Marvin has shifted her attention "from the instrument to the drama in which existing groups perpetually negotiate power, authority, representation, and knowledge with whatever resources are available." From this perspective, "New media intrude on these negotiations by providing new platforms on which old groups confront one another."

Predictably, Headrick builds his analysis of early point-to-point electric media around "technical and economic" attributes such as speed, coverage, reliability, and cost (p. 4). A by-product of this artifactual approach is that it makes Headrick et al. particularly vulnerable to charges of technological determinism. Headrick delivers the rhetoric trumpeting a new approach to media history, yet fails to deliver the substance of what could have been a well-received experiment as long as a decade ago.



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