Crossed Wires: The Conflicted History of US Telecommunications, From the Post Office to the Internet
“a rigorously analyzed, seminal work . . .”
This is an essential study for anyone seriously interested in understanding not only the history of the U.S. postal and telecommunications systems, but the critical role “communications” has played in the evolution of American capitalism.
More pointedly, Dan Schiller anchors much of this comprehensive and exhaustively researched study in the lives of those who usually go unrecorded in such scholarly works, notably Native people, postal clerks, letter carriers, ordinary workers, telephone operators, labor organizers, civil rights activists, and radicals of all stripes.
Unfortunately, at 800-plus pages, it will sadly collect dust on university bookshelves and not be read by the vast American public who most need to learn its invaluable analytic and scholarly lessons.
Schiller’s insight about communications is simple if profound: “The expropriation of Native peoples, Civil War, growth of industrial capitalism, continuing expansion of U.S. imperialism—in all of these major trends, telecommunications played an essential part."
Schiller begins his book with a long-overlooked episode in U.S. history, the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, IL. Few likely knew then or now that a strike by 12,000 telephone workers threatened to block the installation of sophisticated equipment needed to support all the delegates, print and TV reporters and many others. He reveals how a “fix” was arranged to enable the convention to proceed. He also reminds readers that thousands of anti-Vietnam War protestors undermined the convention.
From this incident, Schiller rigorously lays out a history of the dynamic evolution of U.S. communications. He organizes this history into three broad categories: (i) the formative period in which the postal system was established, and telegraphy introduced—facilitating the displacement of the Native peoples; (ii) the era of maturation that fostered modern, mass telecom connectivity—grounded in national business and the military-telecom industry; and (iii) the current phase of “digital capitalism”—culminating in global networks and internet connectivity.
Schiller’s discussion of the introduction of the postal system is most illuminating. Often forgotten, Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution gave Congress the power "To establish Post Offices and post Roads" and “To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper” for executing this task. Schiller details how “posts and telegraphy were parts of the process of military conquest and settlement, to the west and to the south of North America.”
Going further, the author contrasts the early postal system that “came to exemplify the best side of the postmodern state” with the telegraphy system as the “paragon of modern corporate corruption, the center of a web of monopoly predation, financial machinations, and political influence-mongering.” Schiller follows this logic detailing how the defining features of the ever-increasingly more technologically sophisticated and private corporately controlled telecom system came to define electronic communications—from Morse-code telegraphy to voice telephone to today’s digital wired and wireless networks.
At the heart of Schiller’s critique is recognition of the “capitalist imperatives of profit-maximization, cost efficienc, and labor control.” His comprehensive portrait of the evaluation of the U.S. communications is grounded in a perception of the “striking similarities” of today, postmodern digital networks to yesteryear’s analog technologies. His raises a serious warning as to the current state of the U.S. telecom industry as it faces long-term competition not only internationally but from “Big Tech” internet platforms, e.g., Meta/Facebook and Alphabet/Google.
It is a challenge to identify weaknesses in a such an exhaustively researched, 800-page study. However, one gap in Schiller’s otherwise incredible work is a careful consideration how the U.S. became a second-tier telecom nation, one characterized by over-priced and poor-quality services. As of April 2022, only 43 percent of American homes had access to fiber broadband services compared to Norway and South Korea with over 80 percent access, and Spain, Portugal and Japan that were above 90 percent.
A second gap is a careful consideration of what is known as “regulatory capture.” As Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) observed, “It is one way in which powerful corporations rig the system to work for themselves—and the rest of America pays the price. . . . At every stage, the process is loaded with opportunities for powerful industry groups to tilt the scales in their favor.”
According to Open Secrets, the “telecom services” and equipment industry spent $104.8 million on lobbying in 2020 for the “services” of 627 lobbyists and 457 “revolvers” who participated in the “revolving door that shuffles former federal employees into jobs as lobbyists, consultants and strategists just as the door pulls former hired guns into government careers.”
Finally, few Americans are aware of just how much they have been—and are being!—swindled by Big Telecom. In 2016, Public Knowledge estimated that over the decade of 2012–2022 telecoms overcharged customers a half-trillion dollars. In addition, New Networks Institute (NNI) estimates that over the three decades between 1992 and 2021, telecom customers were overcharged an estimated $1.3 trillion.
These shortcomings take nothing away from what Dan Schiller has accomplished in Crossed Wires, a rigorously analyzed, seminal work—a work that should be on everyone’s bookshelf.