Proposal preview

Communications and Globalization since 1850: Nations, Empires, Firms

The commercialization of the Internet has prompted an outpouring of creative scholarship on pre-Internet communications networks.  Much of this work has questioned the pronouncements of technology enthusiasts that we are entering a global age in which the nation is no longer a weighty political actor. Our papers are informed by this critique. To what extent have transnational communications networks been “tools of empire,” as Daniel R. Headrick famously contended? Might they, alternatively, have followed a space-transcending capitalist logic of the kind that Dwayne Winseck and Robert Pike has explored?  To what extent are these networks best understood through the lens of the firm?  How have they shaped vital nation-transcending institutions, such as the provisioning of news?

To engage these questions, the organizers have tapped both established and rising scholars. The participants hail from eight countries on three continents who are based at thirteen different institutions and range from graduate students to emeritus professors.

We decided to submit this paper in the second round, having noticed that no panel dealing specifically with communications networks had been accepted in the first round. We believe that this topic deserves to be included in a program whose theme is “waves of globalization” and set about assembling the strongest group of international scholars that we could.  Brief paper descriptions are included an appendix.

Each of the papers engages these questions from the standpoint of historical institutionalism.  That is, they emphasize the interplay between specific businesses, governments, and occupational groups.  An effort has been made to expand our ambit beyond the three countries that have often figured most prominently in recent scholarly debates on this topic—namely, the United Kingdom, France, and the United States. For example, two papers focus on Germany (one of which also deals with Latin America and Asia), a third is primarily concerned with institutional transformations originating in Africa, while a fourth analyzes recent Chinese investments in Africa.

Our session is divided into two ninety-minute segments, divided by topic. The first considers network governance; the second, the political economy of information.

Organizer(s)

  • Richard R. John Columbia University rrj2115@columbia.edu United States
  • Pascal Griset Sorbonne pascalgriset@icloud.com France
  • Simone M. Muller LMU-Munich simone.mueller@rcc.lmu.de Germany

Session members

  • Sanne Aagaard Jensen, University of Copenhagen
  • James R. Brennan, University of Illinois
  • Jian Chang, Tinghua University
  • Pascal Griset, Sorbonne
  • Daniel R. Headrick, Roosevelt University
  • Richard R. Johnston, Columbia University
  • Leonard Laborie, CNRS
  • Andreas Marklund, ENIGMA
  • Simone M. Müller, LMU-Munich
  • Hugh Slotten, University of Otago
  • Heidi J.S. Tworek, University of British Columbia
  • Emily West, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
  • Emilie Xie, Columbia University
  • Qiguang Yang, Renmin University

Discussant(s)

  • Daniel R. Headrick Roosevelt University (emeritus) dan.headrick@att.net
  • Richard R. John Columbia University rrj2115@columbia.edu
  • Heidi Tworek University of British Columbia heidi.tworek@ubc.ca

Papers

Panel abstract

The commercialization of the Internet has prompted an outpouring of creative scholarship on pre-Internet communications networks. Much of this work has questioned the pronouncements of technology enthusiasts that we are entering a global age in which the nation is no longer a weighty political actor. Our papers are informed by this critique. To what extent have transnational communications networks been “tools of empire,” as Daniel R. Headrick famously contended? Might they, alternatively, have followed a space-transcending capitalist logic of the kind that Dwayne Winseck and Robert Pike has explored? To what extent are these networks best understood through the lens of the firm? How have they shaped vital nation-transcending institutions, such as the provisioning of news?

1st half

The Struggle for Control in the Age of Imperialism versus the Belle Epoque of Liberal Internationalism and the Modern World Economy in Communications History

Dwayne Winseck

A decade ago Robert Pike and I argued that a fixation on geopolitics, imperialism and the struggle for control for resources amongst Britain, France, Germany, the United States and Japan had defined histories of international communication for nearly a century—a view that cast communications media primarily as “weapons of politics.” We contrasted this model with an “internationalization of control” view that placed communications media within the origins of the capitalist world economy and liberal internationalism/imperialism. While some dismissed these efforts, others have paid greater attention to the telegraph and global news business since. A decade on, this paper examines the impact of this recent turn to business- and economic-history on the study of global communication and media history.

A decade ago Robert Pike and I argued that a fixation on geopolitics, imperialism and the struggle for control for resources amongst Britain, France, Germany, the United States and Japan had defined histories of international communication for nearly a century—a view that cast communications media primarily as “weapons of politics.” We contrasted this model with an “internationalization of control” view that placed communications media within the origins of the capitalist world economy and liberal internationalism/imperialism. While some dismissed these efforts, others have paid greater attention to the telegraph and global news business since. A decade on, this paper examines the impact of this recent turn to business- and economic-history on the study of global communication and media history.

American and German Telephone Manufacturers at War, 1917-1945

Pascal Griset, Christian Henrich-Franke, Léonard Laborie, Guido Thiemeyer

Standards adopted in Europe for long distance telephony in the interwar years were very much the result of a technopolitical alliance between the American industry and French decision makers to block German interests from entering the field. With the occupation of most of continental Europe, German manufacturing companies had the opportunity to turn things up side down. Hence their own promotion of a united Europe through telecommunication between 1940 and 1945.

Standards adopted in Europe for long distance telephony in the interwar years were very much the result of a technopolitical alliance between the American industry and French decision makers to block German interests from entering the field. With the occupation of most of continental Europe, German manufacturing companies had the opportunity to turn things up side down. Hence their own promotion of a united Europe through telecommunication between 1940 and 1945.

Between Commercial Interests and National Security: Private Telephone Companies and Cold War Preparedness

Sanne Aagaard Jensen

In the early Cold War years, telecommunication networks were recognized as increasingly important for international and national security. In NATO, they played a vital role in the build-up of a defense of Western Europe, which also involved concerns about preparedness planning on public communication infrastructures. This paper takes as its point of departure the policies developed on communications security in NATO and explores the consequences hereof for the commercial actors in the telecom sector. By using Denmark as a case study, it examines the intermingling of Cold War geopolitics with public and commercial affairs, thereby addressing the dilemma faced by private Danish telephone companies between state security and customer needs.

In the early Cold War years, telecommunication networks were recognized as increasingly important for international and national security. In NATO, they played a vital role in the build-up of a defense of Western Europe, which also involved concerns about preparedness planning on public communication infrastructures. This paper takes as its point of departure the policies developed on communications security in NATO and explores the consequences hereof for the commercial actors in the telecom sector. By using Denmark as a case study, it examines the intermingling of Cold War geopolitics with public and commercial affairs, thereby addressing the dilemma faced by private Danish telephone companies between state security and customer needs.

Global Perspectives on Satellite Communications

Hugh Slotten

Influential historians have recently called for more research refocusing local or national histories in a global context. This paper builds on this effort for the general field of the history of communications using a case study of the early development of satellite communications. The presentation will specifically explore the following question: What difference does a global perspective make for writing a local or national history of communications?

Influential historians have recently called for more research refocusing local or national histories in a global context. This paper builds on this effort for the general field of the history of communications using a case study of the early development of satellite communications. The presentation will specifically explore the following question: What difference does a global perspective make for writing a local or national history of communications?

The Global Ambitions of Amazon, 21st Century Tech Giant and ‘World’s Biggest’ E-Tailer

Emily West

Amazon may be the world’s biggest e-tailer, but its global ambitions are a work in progress. In the world’s largest and fastest growing ecommerce markets – China and India – Amazon is well behind nationally-based incumbents Alibaba, JD.com, and Flipkart. A key aspect of Amazon’s strategy for growth in these markets is its emerging attention to global supply chain management, an initiative code-named “Dragon Boat” according to reports. Comparing Amazon with the Chinese ecommerce giants, this paper considers the role of the state in promoting global supply chain management as China is doing via its “Belt and Road” global trade infrastructure initiative. It considers the extent to which Amazon operates as a quasi-state actor, due to its scale, integrated activities, and global ambitions. The case of Amazon illustrates the interdependence of offline infrastructure and information communication technologies, and the workings of national borders in the supposedly borderless realm of digital...

Amazon may be the world’s biggest e-tailer, but its global ambitions are a work in progress. In the world’s largest and fastest growing ecommerce markets – China and India – Amazon is well behind nationally-based incumbents Alibaba, JD.com, and Flipkart. A key aspect of Amazon’s strategy for growth in these markets is its emerging attention to global supply chain management, an initiative code-named “Dragon Boat” according to reports. Comparing Amazon with the Chinese ecommerce giants, this paper considers the role of the state in promoting global supply chain management as China is doing via its “Belt and Road” global trade infrastructure initiative. It considers the extent to which Amazon operates as a quasi-state actor, due to its scale, integrated activities, and global ambitions. The case of Amazon illustrates the interdependence of offline infrastructure and information communication technologies, and the workings of national borders in the supposedly borderless realm of digital capitalism.

2nd half

States and Corporations: The Significance of Cable Landing Rights in the Nineteenth Century

Simone M. Müller

Maritime space was decisive for the business set-up of globally operating ocean cable companies during the long nineteenth century. Along the technical nerves of the globe, the telegraph actors constructed a distinct seascape that transgressed and challenged existing national territoriality. Landing the cable ashore, on existing territoriality, was the crucial moment that challenged their global sea-scape. Landing-rights were the decisive factor for defining the state-corporate relationship in the global cable communications market alongside that of business success or failure. This paper extrapolates how these two different territorialities, one on land and one on sea, one nationally and one globally oriented, came to co-exist in the global communications sector in the nineteenth century; and how landing rights became the decisive factor to define the delicate relationship between states and globally operating corporations.

Maritime space was decisive for the business set-up of globally operating ocean cable companies during the long nineteenth century. Along the technical nerves of the globe, the telegraph actors constructed a distinct seascape that transgressed and challenged existing national territoriality. Landing the cable ashore, on existing territoriality, was the crucial moment that challenged their global sea-scape. Landing-rights were the decisive factor for defining the state-corporate relationship in the global cable communications market alongside that of business success or failure. This paper extrapolates how these two different territorialities, one on land and one on sea, one nationally and one globally oriented, came to co-exist in the global communications sector in the nineteenth century; and how landing rights became the decisive factor to define the delicate relationship between states and globally operating corporations.

The German Government and International Communications, 1900-1945

Heidi Tworek

This paper examines how German intentions to control global news influenced the news agency business in the first half of the twentieth century. State subsidies focused on developing wireless technology to bypass what Germans believed were British-controlled submarine cables. German ambitions for an overseas communications network began with connecting the disparate German colonies in Africa and the Pacific Ocean before World War I. During and after World War I, German elites began to focus on creating a world communications network that would counter French and British influence. The German attempt to build a global communications network also intended to boost German trade with East Asia and Latin America. This economic ambition only ended in 1945. Overall, the paper explores how state subsidies promoted an alternative international communications network emanating from Germany, but focused on distant places like Africa, Latin America, or East Asia.

This paper examines how German intentions to control global news influenced the news agency business in the first half of the twentieth century. State subsidies focused on developing wireless technology to bypass what Germans believed were British-controlled submarine cables. German ambitions for an overseas communications network began with connecting the disparate German colonies in Africa and the Pacific Ocean before World War I. During and after World War I, German elites began to focus on creating a world communications network that would counter French and British influence. The German attempt to build a global communications network also intended to boost German trade with East Asia and Latin America. This economic ambition only ended in 1945. Overall, the paper explores how state subsidies promoted an alternative international communications network emanating from Germany, but focused on distant places like Africa, Latin America, or East Asia.

Global Peace and Bolshevik Agitation: Visions and Fears around Transnational Communications in Scandinavia, 1919–1939

Andreas Marklund

The nineteenth-century development of global networks for electrically transmitted information was accompanied by a narrative of a united world, in which human conflict and misunderstanding would be eradicated through border-crossing communication.  At the same time, however, many national governments viewed the transnational communication links with suspicion, as they could be used to disseminate dangerous ideas and political propaganda. Thus, surveillance and censorship are also crucial to the history of global communications. The proposed paper will delve into the historical paradox that unfolds at the national/transnational junction, focusing on Danish and Swedish experiences during the interwar period.

The nineteenth-century development of global networks for electrically transmitted information was accompanied by a narrative of a united world, in which human conflict and misunderstanding would be eradicated through border-crossing communication.  At the same time, however, many national governments viewed the transnational communication links with suspicion, as they could be used to disseminate dangerous ideas and political propaganda. Thus, surveillance and censorship are also crucial to the history of global communications. The proposed paper will delve into the historical paradox that unfolds at the national/transnational junction, focusing on Danish and Swedish experiences during the interwar period.

Creating African News Networks: Reuters and its Rivals in the 1960s and 1970s

James R. Brennan

This paper examines the construction of national news agencies in four new African nations - Nigeria, Kenya, Congo, and Mali - in the 1960s and 1970s through the lens of the continent's leading global news provider, Reuters. The resultant communication system that transmitted African news agency information was a hybrid of territorial state monopolies and global corporate networks that perpetually renegotiated terms of service. By studying four countries with distinctly different policy trajectories, this paper will show both how postcolonial state policies could affect the shape of African communication networks, as well as larger common patterns that were set by global corporate developments.

This paper examines the construction of national news agencies in four new African nations - Nigeria, Kenya, Congo, and Mali - in the 1960s and 1970s through the lens of the continent's leading global news provider, Reuters. The resultant communication system that transmitted African news agency information was a hybrid of territorial state monopolies and global corporate networks that perpetually renegotiated terms of service. By studying four countries with distinctly different policy trajectories, this paper will show both how postcolonial state policies could affect the shape of African communication networks, as well as larger common patterns that were set by global corporate developments.

Media Globalization with Chinese Characteristics: China Central Television (CCTV) in Africa since 2000

Jiang Chang

This paper takes the form of a historical analysis of the organizational and cultural investment in Africa of China Central Television (CCTV)--the official TV network of Chinese central government. It considers three questions. First, using Africa as a case study, what role has the Chinese government (understood as a a party-state) played in the globalization of the Chinese TV industry? Second, how can we best understand the relationships that the Chinese government had established and maintained with major Chinese communication technology companies--e.g. Huawei and StarTimes. Third, how have African audiences interpreted Chinese TV content, especially news and TV drama? The paper concludes by making some general observations about the developmental path of China’s TV industry, and proposing a framework for a comprehensive understanding of media globalization with “Chinese characteristics.”

This paper takes the form of a historical analysis of the organizational and cultural investment in Africa of China Central Television (CCTV)--the official TV network of Chinese central government. It considers three questions. First, using Africa as a case study, what role has the Chinese government (understood as a a party-state) played in the globalization of the Chinese TV industry? Second, how can we best understand the relationships that the Chinese government had established and maintained with major Chinese communication technology companies--e.g. Huawei and StarTimes. Third, how have African audiences interpreted Chinese TV content, especially news and TV drama? The paper concludes by making some general observations about the developmental path of China’s TV industry, and proposing a framework for a comprehensive understanding of media globalization with “Chinese characteristics.”

Going Global: China’s Digital Economy since 1994

Emilie Xie, Qiguang Yang

This paper examines the role in China’s burgeoning information and communication technology (ICT) industry of domestic actors, foreign parties, and the state apparatus. Over the last two decades, Chinese ICT companies have contributed significantly to the country’s GDP. Yet the relationship of these companies to the Chinese state is complex. Though these companies have benefited greatly from government support they have also been restrained by government pressure. This paper takes as its subject the global network infrastructure of ICT giant Tencent Holdings Ltd. Its focus is on the company’s expanding revenue model and its close relationship with the state. It contends that Tencent is best understood not as a social media platform with millions of overseas Wechat users, but, instead, as a portfolio of investments with a growing transnational presence.

This paper examines the role in China’s burgeoning information and communication technology (ICT) industry of domestic actors, foreign parties, and the state apparatus. Over the last two decades, Chinese ICT companies have contributed significantly to the country’s GDP. Yet the relationship of these companies to the Chinese state is complex. Though these companies have benefited greatly from government support they have also been restrained by government pressure. This paper takes as its subject the global network infrastructure of ICT giant Tencent Holdings Ltd. Its focus is on the company’s expanding revenue model and its close relationship with the state. It contends that Tencent is best understood not as a social media platform with millions of overseas Wechat users, but, instead, as a portfolio of investments with a growing transnational presence.

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