Media History as Business History: The Political Economy of American Telecommunications in Comparative Perspective

Friday, January 6, 2012: 2:30 PM
Sheraton Ballroom IV (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Richard John, Columbia University
Historical writing on American telecommunications in the long nineteenth century has long presumed that the dominant network providers--Western Union for the telegraph; the Bell System for the telephone--were "natural monopolies" whose ascendancy followed inexorably from economic incentives and technological imperatives. This was, for example, the conclusion that Alfred Chandler reached in his landmark Visible Hand.

Recent scholarship has challenged this view. My comment will highlight this scholarship, in an effort to propose a different approach to media history--an approach that locates media institutions in the political economy in which they operated. (I define “political economy” in a commonsense way to embrace the rules of the game for network providers.) While much of this scholarship has focused on the United States, it has drawn imaginatively on the burgeoning literature on related topics for other countries--including Great Britain, France, and Canada.

This approach has implications for present-day debates over the regulation of the internet, since economic and technological arguments remain influential among policymakers. Among the historians whose scholarship I will touch on are Robert MacDougall, Christopher Beauchamp, Carolyn Cooper, Christine MacLeod, Zorina Khan, Catherine Bertho-Lavenir, and myself.

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