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The politics of international communications networks

The Invisible Weapon: Telecommunications and International Politics, 1851-1945 - Daniel R. Headrick

As technology has increased the speed of communications over the past two centuries, so too has it increased its importance to governments.  With knowledge being power, governments have sought to capitalize on the increasing rapidity and accessibility of communications, both for advancing their own control and to limit the power and influence of their adversaries.  This is something that Daniel Headrick clearly demonstrates in this book, which examines the political aspects of the emergence of the global communications network in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


Headrick begins by examining the emergence of the first technology to make rapid communication over long distances possible – the electric telegraph.  While developing internal networks was relatively easy, communications over long distances was politically risky, as messages could be intercepted and disrupted on lines that crossed hostile territory.  Security thus became an issue early in global communications, one that could only be guaranteed by submarine cables, which gave their owner direct contact with possessions half a world away.  The leader in the effort to establish an international network was Great Britain; though most Western governments seized on telegraphy in the second half of the nineteenth century, only the British had capital markets large enough both to fund the often expensive projects and to absorb their often considerable loss.


By the start of the twentieth century, a rapid communications network spanned the globe, one that served as a tool of national power and security.  Yet as Headrick notes, it also fueled international insecurity.  He sees the quickening pace of communications as a factor in the growing international tensions that plagued the world in the first decade of the new century, as the speed of events overtook the ability of diplomats (who were used to a much more gradual course that gave them time in which to operate) to respond effectively.  During the war, the British demonstrated the power granted by their control of the telegraph network, as they cut the Germans off from easy contact with other regions, especially America.  This gave Britain a vital edge in shaping the interpretation of the conflict, one that helped swing the United States firmly into their camp.


Yet as vital an advantage communications control was, it was a reflection of British power at its zenith.  Even before the start of the war, radio threatened to break the British monopoly on telegraphy.  Moreover, by the end of the war the British faced a rival of even greater wealth: the United States, which used the new technology to erode Britain’s dominance in telecommunications.  The adoption of shortwave in the 1920s ended British hegemony, while the Second World War saw the British bequeath their position as the dominant power in global communications to the United States, during a conflict in which communications played a decisive role in the Allied victory over the Axis powers.


If there is a complaint to be lodged against this generally excellent book, it is that while Headrick does a great job of explaining the impact of telecommunications during the world wars, he rarely demonstrates how telecommunications facilitated political control in peacetime.  It would have been insightful to examine episodes from the early years of telecommunications revealed its power and how such examples altered views towards the burgeoning new technology.  Yet this is a minor quibble.  Well researched and clearly written, Headrick offers a great introduction to the development of the global telecommunications network in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and its role in international politics, one that should be read by anyone seeking to understand the role of technology in shaping political power.