The People’s Network - The Political Economy of the Telephone in the Gilded Age

I just finished reading The People’s Network: The Political Economy of the Telephone in the Gilded Age by Robert MacDougal. It was fresh look at the early years of the telephone network, and how the technology has shaped this country, and this country shaped the technology. While it was primarily focused on the years 1890 to 1930, which was a very different time, you can draw several parallels to what has happened between 1990 and 2020 with the Internet. The book pulled back the curtain on the history we’ve all been told about Alexander Graham Bell, revealing that AT&T was who wrote the narrative we all know so well, and sharing a deep look at how many personalities, independents, municipal, and federal government agencies built the telephone network we all take for granted.  

For me, the most important takeaway from the book was all about the power of storytelling. From convincing people that they needed the telephone in their lives to convincing people that the government should be regulating the telephone industry–it was about good storytelling. I am fascinated by the staying power of our belief in corporations and markets and willingness to overlook and rewrite the role that government plays in all of this. As with the world of APIs it is stories all the way up and down. I am reading this book because I love history, but also, I am interested in learning more about how regulation unfolded when it came to the railroad, telephone, radio, and other technologies that have shaped our lives. I am hesitant to draw any direct lines from historical regulation to what is happening with the Internet, but these stories are full of endless lessons about how this is all more about people and greed, than it ever is about technology.  

Patents drove a lot of the early days of telephony, something that has been significantly weakened when it comes to the digital realm, and APIs. Municipal, state, and federal regulation played a massive role in shaping the telephone industry and laying the foundation for the Internet. Entrepreneurs love to showcase the savvy technologists and businesspeople behind these movements, and love to rewrite the role that government plays in all of this. When, the telephone industry would not have reached the scale it did without government stepping in and shifting beyond the ruling business class of the time. Many of the pricing structures we use in the SaaS and other reaches of the software world emerged during the early years of the telephone to get around regulation. As usual, so much of the markets we take for granted were shaped by government regulation, and have worked to the advantage of corporations, not the usual narrative you hear from business about government getting in the way.  

What I really like about AT&T’s approach to storytelling was how in the early part of the 20th century they focused on the network or the system. Like the railroad that had just redefined the country, and the radio that was also beginning to shape who were, the telephone was the beginning of “The Network Effect” we now take for granted online. My belief about APIs being all about operating at the intersection of the technology, business, and politics of the digital landscape reflects that narrative around the telephone network. The stories you believe tend to reflect where you are in the food chain when it came to the early telephone network as well as the API-driven world of digital applications we find ourselves drowning in today. So far, I have read history about regulation for railroads, radio, and now telephony. Next, I’ll dive deeper into the world of electricity, and then broadcast television. I will be keeping an eye out for how monopolies like Bell told stories about the shifting landscape around us.