Volume 12, No. 2
News of the Field:
Global Communication Networks
The theme for this year's joint conference of the Organization of American Historians and the National Council of Public History focused on "The United States and the Wider World." Pamela Laird organized and moderated a plenary roundtable session with the title "Communication and Transportation Networks as Keys to Global History" that matched well with Mercurian and SHOT expertise and insights.
"World History and Communication Networks," the paper of William McNeill, emeritus of the University of Chicago, set the pace with his vision of the centrality of "communication nets" to all civilizations and to changes within and between civilizations. He argued that communications, in all forms, drive history, including growing cultural and moral diversity from intensifying worldwide communication networks.
Elliott Barkan, of California State University, explored "From Wakes for the Departed to Videos for the Home Folk: Immigration Networks and the Transportation and Communications Revolutions of the Past Century." Among many fascinating points, Barkan observed that with each innovation in communication technology, our tolerance for delays has declined. We now measure our communication lags, regardless of distance, in seconds, and grow impatient with any delays. R. E. G. Davies, of the Smithsonian Institution's National Air & Space Museum then tied "The United States and the Wider World: The Significance of Air Transport" into the overall theme in imaginative and erudite ways.
Andrew Butrica, of NASA, demonstrated the centrality of satellite communications to the development of both worldwide and local communication networks that we have come to take for granted. Based on his prize-winning book, Beyond the Ionosphere: 50 Years of Satellite Communications, winner of the OAH's 1998 Richard M Leopold Prize for a book written outside of an academic setting, Butrica explored the geopolitics of how satellites evolved as essential intermediaries between myriad communications devices and systems that now depend on them. Paul N. Edwards, of the University of Michigan, concluded the session with "Computer-based Infrastructures and Globalization." He analyzed computer-based sociotechnical systems-the Internet, weather prediction, and computer trading in world financial markets-and explored their evolution into global infrastructures. Edwards showed that the direct linkage between calculation, communication, and control made possible by digital computers was the key to new industrial, financial, and ultimately social infrastructures, that is, widespread and basic social, technological, and organizational systems. A lively discussion with the audience followed.