- Global Communication Electric: Business, News, and Politics in the World of Telegraphy ed. by M. Michaela Hampf, Simone Müller-Pohl
Edited by M. Michaela Hampf and Simone Müller-Pohl. Frankfurt am Main: Campus, 2014. Pp. 386. $59.
Edited collections are never easy. They speak in multiple voices. However much their originators want them to have a central theme, they rarely do. The editors here claim they will critically reconsider the three “grand narratives” that currently dominate studies of Victorian telegraphy: that it represented the annihilation of time and space, a prototypical “internet,” and a tool of imperial control and Euro-American nationalistic power politics (p. 9). Unfortunately it is hard to take Tom Standage’s lightweight The Victorian Internet (1998) seriously as a grand narrative in the company of works by Harold Innis and Daniel Headrick, to name but two of the many writers the editors quote (pp. 1, 3). So what do they propose to replace those grand narratives? The consideration of: “transboundary processes of scientific and business exchanges”; “intergovernmental modes of governance”; and “alternative notions of identity formation beyond and outside of the (primarily Euro-American) nation-state” (p. 9).
Problematically, the editors’ descriptions of each of the four sections into which they divide the work retreat into one or more of the grand narratives in ways that make it hard for the reader to see where they propose to move beyond them. In Inter|Nationalisms they present papers by Dwayne Winseck, Léonard Laborie, and Martin Doll. Winseck and Robert Pike’s Communication and Empire (2007) covers “alternative notions of identity formation” most effectively, so it is hardly surprising that Winseck does a good job here reprising that work. Laborie gives us a sophisticated account of the emergence of the International Telegraph Union. The editors may think of this as an “intergovernmental mode of governance,” but it is really an account of transnationalist forces at work, driven by the needs of business as well as the nation-state. Doll’s paper sits uneasily in this group, as well as uneasily within itself, as an account of communist ideals applied to telecommunications. On the one hand telecommunications should be, per Friedrich Engels, converted into state property (p. 105); on the other they should also be a medium of exchange among the working class. Regrettably, Engels’s vision isn’t far from that of Dr. Goebbels or Vladimir Putin, and neither of those was/is interested in telecommunications as a medium of exchange.
In the Agents|Actors section, Daqing Yang reprises his work on Japan’s creation of an alternative imperial network to that laid by British capital. Lars Bluma provides a whiggish history of the link between world’s fairs and telegraphy. From 1851 to 1860 a technologically driven and uncritically examined progress was on display. But from 1860 to 1880 the [End Page 756] narrative shifted to the geopolitical struggle between nation-states as the “new nationalism” began to rear its head. Wendy Gagen, in the first paper that lives up to the editors’ aims with regard to identity formation, looks at manliness among Victorian telegraphers, mostly through the lens of the Eastern Telegraph Company’s in-house magazine, The Zodiac.
In Use|News Michael Mann echoes Winseck’s work on the way Indians used the telegraph in very different ways than their British overlords. He suggests that different telegraphic communities helped shaped partition following independence. Amelia Bonea’s paper picks up on the extent to which telegraphic news reporting in nineteenth-century India was a contested arena, albeit one in which the Reuters news agency played a central, quasi-monopolistic role. Volker Barth concludes the section by arguing that telegraphically reported news pushed journalism toward higher standards of objectivity.
Finally, Space|Time reprises an argument familiar to geographers—that telecommunications technologies massively shrank space and time. Barney Warf’s Time-Space Compression (2008) would have been a good starting point. Gordon Winder mines the pages of the Los Angeles Times for a fascinating account of disaster reporting in the period 1917–39, with a particular focus...