Authors: Tom Wheeler
Publisher: Brookings Institution Press
Publishing Date: February 26, 2019
Pages: 302 (Hardcover)
Do you ever wonder how the internet will have redefined societal norms 50 years from now? If so, you’re not alone. We are living through a “network revolution”—a time of technological upheaval and societal change driven by “disruptive” technological advances.
In his new book, From Gutenberg to Google: The History of Our Future, former chairperson of the Federal Communications Committee (FCC) Tom Wheeler provides some historical perspective by describing the technological history and societal implications of the three major “network revolutions” of recorded history: the printing press, the telegraph and railroad, and the internet.
While each revolution has unique features, by-and-large technological network revolutions follow a pattern: a series of technological advances are combined to produce a disruptive change which then is followed by a period of uncertainty as people struggle to create a new “normal,” complete with doom-mongers foretelling the end of civilization as we know it. This eventually redefines societal structures and expectations, with technology becoming an unobtrusive part of the fabric of daily life. According to Wheeler, “A new network technology produces upheaval long before it produces stability” (48).
Wheeler, in the second section of his book, describes the first two completed revolutions in this cycle. After describing the history of the technological advances which culminated in the printing press (circa AD 1450), Wheeler discusses how the new technology fueled the fires of the Reformation and the Enlightenment by making texts and flyers available cheaply and in large quantities. In 1685, one alarmist challenging the change warned that “we have reason to fear that the magnitude of books which grows every day in a prodigious fashion will make the following centuries fall into a state as barbarous as that of the centuries that followed the fall of the Roman Empire” (48).
This cycle repeats in the combined revolution of the railroad, which destroyed the physical separation between places, and the telegraph network, resulting in the breakdown of the barriers of time and place. These new technologies also had their nay-sayers—Thoreau, for example, famously wrote in Walden: “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas…but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing to communicate” (107). However, their pressure slowly changed the fabric of daily life—transforming Chicago into America’s second city, creating the Associated Press news organization, defining a new normal, and likely contributing significantly to the North’s victory in the Civil War.
The third section of the book focuses the historical lens on the current internet network revolution, tracing the history of computing technology (which interestingly has its origin in the railroad), connected computing via the phone lines, and finally connected computing without wires. As the text moves into the wireless technology section, Wheeler begins to intersperse reflections from his career in the communications industry and at the FCC, where he was responsible for establishing regulations for the 5G wireless network. At the end of this section, he observes that today’s reactions, both from businesses (whose markets are threatened) and individuals (who doubt or fear the new), echo those of previous eras.
The chapter that leads off the final section of the book is called “The history we are making,” and in it and the chapter that follows, Wheeler seeks to unpack our cultural response to the technical revolution. These two reflective chapters touch on a variety of social and economic arenas experiencing upheaval, including: capital assets, privacy, the impact of internet access on local economies, the future of education, money (blockchain), cyber vulnerability, and much more.
The book is well-written and provides an interesting historical context; however, the history is high-level and focused narrowly on technological advances, without much attention to the larger social-historical context. That said, Wheeler writes well and brings disparate threads together into a coherent story that needs to be part of the context for our contemporary discussions.
The author is clearly a technological optimist. He seems to believe that if we just give it time, the issues will all work themselves out as they have in the past revolutions. However, in his discussion of our contemporary response his arguments are weakened by a lack of articulation regarding how technologies implicitly promote particular values (for further discussion of the non-neutrality of technology see Exercising Our Worldview by Charles Adams).
While it doesn’t seem like he is unaware of this important facet, (for example, at one point he argues that the previous revolutions put the power in the hands of the network, but that this revolution puts it in the hands of the user) he does seem to underestimate its importance in framing responses to the current revolution. The ways the issues work out in the societal context are a direct result of the ways in which people choose to respond, which in turn is largely influenced by how they view the effects of technology. This shortcoming is, perhaps, a result of the narrowness of the historical focus, which obscures the role of social activism in shaping the societal response.
The ways the author proposes to address the societal implications of the technological issues are a curious mix of individual responses and government regulations. I find it particularly interesting that, despite a case study of the 20th century AT&T monopoly, which the company argued for based on an assertion that it was for the greater good, he suggests that the current social media giants (e.g. Facebook) should take action (out of a sense of public duty) to combat the proliferation of clickbait/fake news and allow 3rd party developers access to the input and output of their platforms. (Recognizing that this might not happen, he does make a follow-up suggestion that if they won’t act, it might be the place of the government to regulate this.) Also missing from his discussion is any reflection on the growing research consensus that social media is having a measurable, negative psychological effect on individuals in our society (for example see “Social Media and Adolescents’ and Young Adults’ Mental Health”).
The topics raised at the end of this book need serious contemplation by those in policy, advocacy, and social justice. History, Wheeler reminds us, “has been clear in the expectations it sets for our future. The innovations created by new networks topple old institutions and accelerate the pace of life. The demands of the new and the absence of traditional moorings generate frustration and bewilderment” (23). As we navigate through our response to these issues, Wheeler’s perspective as an amateur historian, a former FCC chair, and a business person adds a useful voice to the conversation.