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Book Review


Winseck, Dwayne R., and Pike, Robert M. Communication and Empire: Media, Markets, and Globalization, 1860–1930 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007). 429 pp, $24.95

     How deep is the history of global communications? Deeper, Dwayne Winseck and Robert Pike argue in Communication and Empire, than the twentieth-century technologies and systems that are usually highlighted. In a richly layered and complex history that spans developments in all of the inhabited continents, Winseck and Pike present a compelling case for tracing the advent of 'deep and durable' globalization back to the advent of a worldwide network of cable and telegraph systems in the 1860s. (1)

     Histories of communication focused on the second half of the nineteenth century are conventionally organised by the conceptual frame of imperialism. That frame on its own, we are shown in ten chapters, falls short of accounting for the practices of those who designed, implemented, financed, opposed and used cable and later wireless networks. Looking for the realisation of imperialism and national aspirations in communication systems, for instance, may lead us to miss or downplay the emergence of multinational companies, cartels and ring agreements that aimed to divide and share global markets. Further, it may lead us to ignore the agreements that governments entered into with foreign firms to meet their communication needs, including the transmission of military and sensitive material. If anything, Winseck and Pike insist, the globalization of capitalism had a stronger effect on global communication than imperialism. (40)

     Communication and Empire opens with a much-needed introduction to the individuals, companies and projects that helped to establish a global telegraph infrastructure between 1850 and 1870. The complex web of connections described between individuals such as John Pender, John Brett and Charles T. Bright and companies such as the Telegraph to India, The British Indian Submarine Telegraph Company and the Indo-European will test the concentration of any reader. Fortunately, a summary table is provided on p.30, and the assembled evidence is clearly directed to show that the development of a global communications infrastructure was accelerated by the formation of cartels in and across Britain, Europe and North America, and the privileging of communication projects in the modernization programs sought in Egypt, Persia and the Ottoman Empire. Persian threats to build and control the telegraph bridge between Europe and Britain, for instance, elicited European investment and political recognition. As chapter two—focused on the establishment of Euro-American and South American connections—shows, however, cable infrastructure stripped away much of the insulation between developing economies and global economic downturns. Further, downturns offered multinationals and foreign countries opportunities to take over infrastructure activities that had previously been controlled by states. Chapter three, dedicated to mapping the underdevelopment of cable systems in Africa, highlights the main thesis of the book, that the boundaries of the global cable network were the boundaries of actual or perceived financial viability, not just imperial control or obligation. This point is revisited in chapters five and six from the angle of the attempts by individuals such as Sir Sandford Fleming and John Henniker Heaton, Edward Sassoon, George Squier and Ernst W. H. von Stephen to introduce state-sponsored cable systems as accessible and affordable as penny post. Their agitations had some effect, with companies reducing what were often quite prohibitive charges for deferred, night and off peak messages. Fine print conditions such as minimum word charges, though, prevented the widespread take up of the technology by social users, and irritated staff in press agencies such as Reuters, Havas, Associated Press and Wolff. Even the rise of rival wireless technologies at the beginning of the twentieth century did not spell the end for cable and high prices, for cable companies simply entered into cartels with wireless companies to control user access and pricing.

     On page 192, Winseck and Pike describe Henniker Heaton's plans for a penny imperial cable system as a 'true early vision of the internet'. This is a thought-provoking comparison, and one that might stimulate lively discussion in the world history classroom. Communication and Empire describes a world divided and controlled by a small number of multinational companies, a world in which widespread use of communications technologies was hindered by price fixing and fine-print conditions. To what extent does this description apply to the communication infrastructures of our world? Is this a fair description of our experiences with mobile and internet technologies? Students in undergraduate and graduate world history classes, for example, might find it illuminating to conduct research into the global reach of mobile and internet technologies. Any maps that they locate might be compared with the frontspiece of Winseck and Pike's book, which shows a clear lack of provision in what were thought to be the economically unviable areas of Africa and Siberia. These visual cues can be used to trigger a more in-depth comparison of communication provision in particular areas, with students conducting research on one cable or wireless company and one mobile or internet provider company. A fruitful area of research might also arise from the search for present-day campaigners for more open or equitable access to communication technologies.

     In Habermas's view, globalization 'goes deep' when the 'systems world' of markets, the state and technology connects with the 'life world' of communication, culture and personal experience. (272) This is also true of historiography. Global histories have traditionally favoured the analysis of the 'systems world'. Winseck and Pike aspire to 'go deep', but it is only in pockets of Communication and Empire, such as their analysis of developments in China in chapter four, that we gain a sense of how engaging and informative a combined economic and cultural analysis can be. Both undergraduate and graduate students will find their account of the struggle both within China and between China and foreign governments and cable speculators and forced development through 'build now, ask permission later' developments at turns both entertaining and sobering. Chapters like this remind us that historical analysis can only be strengthened through the consideration of the reception of communication technologies by governments, business and social users, and aspiring users. How important were cable and wireless technologies to ordinary people before 1930? Questions like this demonstrate that the global history of communications can go even deeper.


Marnie Hughes-Warrington
Macquarie University, Sydney Australia


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