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Author: David J. Staley
Title: Global Communications Since 1844: Geopolitics and Technology (Peter J. Hugill)
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
April 2000

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Source: Global Communications Since 1844: Geopolitics and Technology (Peter J. Hugill)
David J. Staley

vol. 3, no. 1, April 2000
Article Type: Book Review

Global Communications Since 1844: Geopolitics and Technology

Peter J. Hugill, Global Communications Since 1844: Geopolitics and Technology. (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999).

"Global village" is one of the root metaphors of cyberspace. This metaphor of an electronically-tethered, cozy, tribal community dominates images of cyberspace in the mass media—and not a few scholarly monographs. This "romantic" image often tends to emphasize the harmony and universal brotherhood that "communications" supposedly engenders. Very few observers draw attention to the "realpolitik" of cyberspace: that the technology of telecommunications has long been enmeshed within strategic and geopolitical considerations.

Peter Hugill does not look to McLuhan for his models and inspiration. He looks instead to McLuhan's less-celebrated mentor, the Canadian political economist Harold Innis. Innis argued that empires in the past achieved dominance by their control over communications systems. Innis identified two types of communications media and their hegemonic implications. "Durable" communications media, like stone and parchment, allowed for the control of time. "Light" media, such as papyrus and paper, allowed for the control of space. Hugill is clearly indebted to Innis's categories, but then places them within other theoretical traditions. One is the geopolitics of the British geographer Halford Mackinder. In 1919, Mackinder made a distinction between territorial states—those that gain wealth through occupation and exploitation of space—and trading states—those that gain wealth through trade, and are thus more "global" in orientation. The other theoretical tradition is the world-systems theory of Immanuel Wallerstein, and especially the examination of hegemonic struggles within the core economies. In so combining Innis, Mackinder and Wallerstein, Hugill is interested in the hegemonic struggles between territorial and trading states within the core of the world-system, and the ways in which their hegemony was insured through global telecommunications technologies.

While his book is theoretical, Hugill nevertheless presents a chronological narrative that might be of greater comfort to historians. At the beginning of this period, Britain held hegemonic dominance largely because of their control of the burgeoning global telecommunications system. This system was based on telegraphy and the undersea cables that distributed it throughout the world. The United States and Germany emerged at the end of the nineteenth century as possible challengers to British hegemony. The Germans failed to overtake Britain in part because they were a territorial state, and thus failed to develop appropriate technologies that might have displaced Britain—a trading state—as a global hegemon.

The Americans might have surpassed Britain after the First World War, but were "delayed" in this hegemonic shift because they initially failed to deploy a viable system that could supplant British control of telegraphy. Interestingly, the United States Navy, according to Hugill, was at the center of American efforts to find a technology that could supplant British telegraphy. In addition to pushing for a larger fleet, the Navy similarly worked to develop a wireless system. Wireless telegraphy and radio were the leading candidates to challenge British technological control of global telecommunications. However, both suffered from technical limitations that did not allow them to be deployed as technologies of global hegemony. Only after the Second World War, once telephony was wedded to satellite technology that could efficiently extend the system across the globe, could the United States emerge as the new hegemonic power. This marriage of telephone and satellite was undertaken by both American commercial interests and the efforts of the US government in the form of the space program.

Hugill's history ends in 1971, at about the same time that the Americans began networking computers. Yet the geostrategic implications of Hugill's study clearly extend to the Internet. Transmission of information in cyberspace is carried out over both land-based and submarine fiber-optic cables, potentially bypassing satellite transmission as the key technology of global telecommunications. The United States does not own a monopoly on these cables; Britain and France are very close competitors. The implication is that, at least in the short run, there is not likely to be a monopoly over fiber-optics like the British enjoyed with undersea telegraph cables or the Americans enjoyed with satellite-driven telephony. Thus, it appears unlikely that a global hegemonic power like the British will emerge in the era of networked computing. More likely is a multipolar system either of competing states—such as the United States, a united Europe and Japan—or a decentralized system of transnational trading interests. Hugill sensibly refrains from defining only one future path, preferring instead to envision several equally likely scenarios. "The lesson of a history informed by social science," he maintains, "is that we should blinded by the assumption that the future will merely be a continuation of the past. What the past teaches us in this case is that the information economy has been around for some time and is no longer a particularly risky or forward-looking investment."(239) We might also note that the information economy and its antecedents have long been dominated by realpolitikers, not by romantic idealists of the global village.

David J. Staley
Heidelberg College