Gregory Downey’s Technology and Communication in American History provides a guided tour of communication technology throughout American History. From the first colonial printing presses to the post 9/11 internet, Downey provides a brief insight into the various mainstream modes of communication technology that have developed over the last two hundred-odd years ad reflects on various aspects regarding their origins and their impacts.
Two prominent questions proposed by Downey are: what should the purpose of these technologies (especially computers) be? Also, how should these networks, which are at least partially dependent on physical space, be controlled? On page 30, Downey presents two facets of an argument in reference to the Telegraph and Telephone, two technologies which required large, elaborate networks of wires to be established in order to function. While the U.S. had several chances to control these networks under the postal service, but never took the opportunity. According to Downey, some argue that the independence of the networks allowed them to stay several years ahead of the infrastructure established elsewhere, like in the United Kingdom. However Downey immediately counteracts this argument, stating that the independence often led to monopolies rather than a healthy business climate, and often these networks were provided hefty subsidies by the United States government. Downey also raises a similar point of discussion earlier in the book while discussing print media, specifically regarding copyright and intellectual property (p.23). While the discussion is quite brief, it is a subject I find worthy of deeper discussion. Specifically, how the relationship with the public domain and views on intellectual property affect creativity today. Only recently did a body of works again begin to enter the public domain in the United States due to copyright extensions. These “Mickey Mouse Laws”, called such because of the role played by Disney in their creation, have warped copyright law in the United States, and were often created to keep valuable intellectual properties, such as Mickey Mouse, from entering public domain. The large and often hypocritical role that Disney has played in this arena is worth further discussion in class, especially because of the implications on the Information Age that other copyright laws, such as the controversial Article 13 from the European Union, can have on the future.
Near the book’s conclusion, Downey also reflects how the 9/11 bombing demonstrated the best and worst aspects of the telecoms. In the immediacy of the bombings, newspapers were firing on all cylinders to provide news, platforms like Google were redirecting users to TV news in order to find the most current coverage. After the fact, coverage of international news remained low apart from news dealing with Iraq, and coverage of celebrity and lifestyle news had risen back to pre-9/11 levels of coverage (p.60). For as disastrous and far-reaching an event as the 9/11 bombing was, it did little to change the media culture of the United States, despite having massive implications on nearly every facet of life.
Downey, Gregory. Technology and Communication in American History. American Historical Association. 2011.