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Technological Waves per Debora Spar
#1
I started reading this book about waves of technological development, and thought it would make a great subject for comparison with saecular theory or historical cycle theory in general. I'm only part way through it, and here is what I've learned so far, as presented on my blog.

http://stevebarrera.com/ruling-the-waves...breakdown/

Ruling the Waves: A Saecular Breakdown

I've posted before about "books from the Third Turning that I didn't get around to until the Fourth Turning." Waiting on the bookshelf for some time has been Ruling the Waves, by Debora L. Spar. This book is subtitled "a History of Business and Politics along the Technological Frontier" and in the introduction discusses the Internet a bit. It was published in 2001 (pre-9/11!), when the commercial Internet was young and Web 2.0 was just getting going. The book was hoping, then, to shed some light on what was to come in the development of cyberspace.

The author has a premise that when a ground-breaking new technology is introduced, it goes through four phases of development before becoming a commonplace part of everyday life on which we depend. First there is the invention phase, involving just a few people, and then the entrepreneur phase, where risk-takers develop the new technology commercially. Next is what she calls a period of "creative anarchy," when the most successful entrepreneurs battle for supremacy in the marketplace, and finally the rulemaking phase, where those who now dominate the technology application push for a fixed legal structure within which to operate.

She goes through different waves of technology, and I was interested to see how what she describes compares to Strauss & Howe saecular theory. The first wave Spar analyzes is the wave of advancements that led to the Age of Discovery - but this happens over a long period of time (centuries) so bringing saecular theory into it seems difficult. The next technological wave was that of the telegraph, and here it is easier to do the analysis.

I was half-expecting to find that the Gilded generation were major players in the drama of the development of the telegraph, since they are the Nomad generation of the Civil War Saeculum. After all, the Nomad generation of the current saeculum, my generation, has had a big part to play in the rise of Internet technology. But what I found is that the the main players in the story (looking at the U.S. part of it) were all from two generations - Compromise and Transcendental. The Gilded are nowhere to be found, probably because they were too young.

The narrative of the development of the telegraph did track pretty well with the turnings of the Civil War Saeculum, however. The invention period occurs at the end of the Transcendental Awakening, the 2nd turning. It involves two key players, Samuel Morse (b. 1791, Compromise Generation) of course, and Alfred Vail (b. 1807, Transcendental Generation), who worked closely with Morse. The idea of transmitting electricity over wires had been known about for decades; their genius was in combining the transmission with encoding, to create information. They managed to get some public backing through Congress to build a line, but the enterprise failed.

So then came the entrepreneurs to buy them out, and build a private enterprise instead. A key player was Amos Kendall (b. 1789, Compromise), a former postmaster general who left his position specifically for this purpose. He proved that it was possible to raise funds privately to build a telegraph line, and once the public caught on to what the technology made possible, the money started flowing into more and more companies building regional lines. Other big time entrepreneurs of this period included Henry O'Rielly (b. 1806, Transcendental) and Cyrus Field (b. 1819, Transcendental), who built the first trans-Atlantic line.

Without going into too much detail, the competition became fierce, as well as costly to the companies involved. In the period leading up to the Civil War, that is the 3rd turning in saecular terms, there was fighting over patent rights and access to markets, as well as confusion sowed by competing signal standards and encoding methods. This is the "creative anarchy" period in Spar's terminology.

The winner of this period of conflict turned out to be Western Union, thanks in large part to the efforts of Hiram Sibley (b. 1807, Transcendental), who led it in its transformation into a telegraph company, eventually establishing the first transcontinental line. With this consolidation came standardization - the rulemaking period. After the Civil War, in the 1st turning of the next saeculum, Western Union became a huge and powerful monopoly, enough to worry people into pressuring the government to regulate it, though not much was done in the Gilded Age.

I just find it fascinating that the so many of the key players in the development of the telegraph were from the Transcendental generation, the Prophet archetype of the Civil War Saeculum. They were the Bill Gates and Steve Jobs equivalents of their time, and of this technological wave.

It wasn't until the end of the new saeculum, with the founding of the FCC, that private communication networks became thoroughly regulated. That was during the era of radio, which is actually the next technology covered by Spar's book. So I will continue reading Ruling the Waves, and report in another post what I discover.
Steve Barrera

[A]lthough one would like to change today's world back to the spirit of one hundred years or more ago, it cannot be done. Thus it is important to make the best out of every generation. - Hagakure

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#2
It took over six months, but I finally got around to part II of this review series. Don't seem to getting much traction with it here, but I will post it anyway for completion. As I've progressed through the book, the tie-in to saecular theory has become less meaningful.

RULING THE WAVES REVIEWED, PART II
May 19, 2020

This is a continuation of an earlier post where I started reviewing the book Ruling the Waves, by Debora L. Spar, specifically attempting to tie the author’s thesis in with saecular theory. In that post I only got as far as the first technological wave, the telegraph. In this post I’ll cover the next two waves – radio and the late twentieth-century advancements in television. First, let’s recap the thesis of Spar’s book, summarized in my first post.


Quote:The author has a premise that when a ground-breaking new technology is introduced, it goes through four phases of development before becoming a commonplace part of everyday life on which we depend. First there is the invention phase, involving just a few people, and then the entrepreneur phase, where risk-takers develop the new technology commercially. Next is what she calls a period of “creative anarchy,” when the most successful entrepreneurs battle for supremacy in the marketplace, and finally the rulemaking phase, where those who now dominate the technology application push for a fixed legal structure within which to operate.

Now, when looking at the telegraph, it was fairly easy to align the development of the technology with the turnings of the Civil War Saeculum. The invention phase happens at the end of the second turning, the entrepreneurial and market free-for-all phases during the third turning leading up to the Civil War, and then the rule-making period comes with the rise of Western Union during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age.

The next two waves, as described by Spar, are a little more compressed in time. The story of radio comes in two halves. The first one is dominated by the best known figure in the history of radio, Guglielmo Marconi (b. 1874 – Missionary peer). He was not just an inventor, but also an entrepreneur, and managed not only to make radio a feasible technology, but also to completely control the market via his patents during the 1910s.

But Marconi’s dominance was undermined by two factors. The first was nation-state governments, which recognized the security implications of wireless communication and used their authority to constrain Marconi’s monopoly power. The second factor was the development of the next generation of radio technology. Marconi’s system used spark gaps to generatate pulses of electricity and transmit signals in Morse code – it was essentially wireless telegraphy. What was really wanted was a way to send signals on continuous waves. Then sound, even music, could be transmitted. It would transform radio into wireless phonography, which is how we experience it today.

This is the second half of the radio story, a sort of mini-wave of its own. The invention phase was primarily the work of an engineer named Reginald Fessenden (b. 1866 – Missionary), and occurred at the same time that Marconi’s creation was prominent. The entrepreneurial/creative anarchy phase took place in the first part of the 1920s. It was kicked off by an important development, the formation of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) in 1919. This was an innovation of its own in the commercialization of communications – RCA was an organization that controlled radio stations without controlling the technology of radio. This was the beginning of the broadcasting industry. Marconi’s system became obsolete and his patents worthless, and his empire crumbled.

In the first half of the 1920s, radio was in a period that definitely matches Spar’s creative anarchy phase in technology develoment. Small stations operated by amateurs – “radioheads” – sprung up everywhere, broadcasting whatever music they could get their hands on. This became too chaotic to be tenable, since by their very nature broadcast signals interfere with one another. Order came with laws passed in the late 1920s to regulate bandwidth, and with the emergence of broadcasting corporations which controlled networks of radio stations and could operate them in a coordinated fashion. The first of these was the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC), and before long ABC and CBS came along – the Big Three which moved on to the world of television broadcasting and which are still prominent today.

So Spar’s entire cycle of four phases of technology development can actually fit into the space of one decade. The fact that radio’s story is ensconced within the third turning of the Great Power saeculum fits that era’s heady, fast-paced reputation. The subsequent development of television takes place in the next first turning, but Spar actually skips over that entirely. Her example from the history of television specifically relates to the rise of satellite and digital TV.

This is another fast cycle, and takes place within the third turning of the current Millennial saeculum – in the 1990s, the last decade before the publication of Spar’s book. It starts with the rise of SkyTV, powered by the relentless ambition of Rupert Murdoch (b. 1931 – Silent). The new techonology in question was satellite broadcasting, and the key to SkyTV’s takeover of the British market was the fact that Britain’s tight television regulations did not cover this particular type of broadcasting.

By taking advantage of this regulatory gap, Murdoch was able to penetrate the British television market with a unique brand, one that threatened Britain’s conservative and cultured self-image with trashy “American-style” content. SkyTV quickly got into financial trouble, which Murdoch handled by bringing in legendary executive Sam Chisholm (b. 1939 – Silent peer). But no sooner had Chisholm straightened things out, than SkyTV was hit by a new wave of techonological innnovation and forced to adjust to that.

This new wave was digital broadcasting, which basically reimplements signal encoding in such a way that far more channels can fit within the same bandwidth of electromagetic radiation. Consequently, providers can offer more content and choices, to presumably leverage for more profit-making. You may remember this transistion, which for consumers was disruptive since it meant their old analog systems were going to become obsolete. You may remember complaining and a sense of consumer powerlessness in the face of inexorable progress. It’s a done deal now, but at the time that Spar’s book was published was an ongoing process of negotiation and new rulemaking.

What’s interesting about these different techonological waves is that as they progress across the twentieth century, “ruling the wave” becomes as much a matter of navigating the regulatory environment as of pioneering a new techonological application. This comes with the growing sophistication of both corporate enterprise and government oversight. But even as the focus of the stories has shifted from individual inventors and entrepreneurs to giant corporations and milestone regulatory acts, there is still room for strong personalities to exert their influence.

The last part of the book covers computer and Internet technology. I will finish reading it and conclude these reviews in a future post.
Steve Barrera

[A]lthough one would like to change today's world back to the spirit of one hundred years or more ago, it cannot be done. Thus it is important to make the best out of every generation. - Hagakure

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#3
This is remarkable, amazing insight.

I have typically considered technology highly capricious as a driver of society. Obviously financing, without which nothing gets done, matters greatly -- as does formal organization and the ability to market a technology. Telegraph to radio (through wireless telegraphy) and then television does not move smoothly. Still photography to moving pictures and recorded sound did not harmonize until 1929, and after that the content of entertainment changed from largely live (vaudeville and the infamous burlesque) to recorded. Technological refinements matter greatly... but even with that I enjoy recordings of Rachmaninov performing the solo parts of his piano concertos and Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini from as early as 1929 -- Rachmaninov was a superb pianist in his own right, and who better knew how to perform his piano works and parts? Then there is Gershwin as his own interpreter... recordings also
obviously limited by his demise before the really good recording technologies of the 1940's.

OK, I am discussing communications and entertainment, but such is much of our lives, especially during the Plague of 2020, when live entertainment is largely in hiatus.
The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated Communist  but instead the people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists -- Hannah Arendt.


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#4
(05-20-2020, 02:50 AM)pbrower2a Wrote: This is remarkable, amazing insight.

I have typically considered technology highly capricious as a driver of society.  Obviously financing, without which nothing gets done, matters greatly -- as does formal organization and the ability to market a technology.  Telegraph to radio (through wireless telegraphy) and then television does not move smoothly.  Still photography to moving pictures and recorded sound did not harmonize until 1929, and after that  the content of entertainment changed from largely live (vaudeville and the infamous burlesque) to recorded. Technological refinements matter greatly... but even with that  I enjoy  recordings of Rachmaninov performing the solo parts of his piano concertos and Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini from as early as 1929 -- Rachmaninov was a superb pianist in his own right, and who better knew how to perform his piano works and parts? Then there is Gershwin as his own interpreter... recordings  also
obviously limited by his demise before the really good recording technologies of the 1940's.    

OK, I am discussing communications and entertainment, but such is much of our lives, especially during the Plague of 2020, when live entertainment is largely in hiatus.

A big part of Spar's insight is that, in order for technology to be broadly applicable, there have to be standards, which ultimately are limitations. The best possible techonology is never what is widely adopted, as I believe has been discussed on an audiophile thread here. What's "good enough" will do. In addition, for efficient delivery of the technology application, it is better to have large, consolidated organizations. So we went from a plethora of telegraph providers to Western Union, from a plethora of radio operators to NBC/ABC/CBS.

To your point about live to recorded: Unfortunately for live theater/music. it's far more efficient to deliver entertainment via recording. A handful of actors can perform to an audience of millions. Thousands of other actors struggle to make ends meet. But the truth is, live theater, and live music, are better. There is a more direct emotional connection between performer and audience member. 

Don't even get me started on the effects of the Plague of 2020.  Sad
Steve Barrera

[A]lthough one would like to change today's world back to the spirit of one hundred years or more ago, it cannot be done. Thus it is important to make the best out of every generation. - Hagakure

Saecular Pages
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#5
Obviously the only way to get Herbert von Karajan's magnificent recording of Bruckner's eighth symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic is through a recording, as the Maestro died in 1986. Do you like the cinematic performances of Katharine Hepburn? You will need a recording.

OK, recordings are now convenient enough and cheap enough that one can often get a CD or video for about the same price as a pack of cancerettes.

Radio was more suited to local production for a longer time because it was not as expensive as television. When she was young (back in the early 1950's) my mother did radio shows for a small-town radio station with a limited market. (I wounder what she could have done in television had she been living in Kalamazoo or Lansing at the time. But TV is expensive for reasons other than technology of broadcasting images as opposed to sound bereft of images. Television requires that people have special make-up and wear the right clothes. The devices used for TV broadcasting of small-city news in a small market were cheesy back in the early 1960's (thus a story of a gas-station robbery in a town in "Bedlam, Adams County, Michigan" -- fictional town and county to protect the innocent) might be nothing more than a county map with the town of Bedlam pointed out).

But even radio went to a star system even if the star is only "Rash Libel" (get it?). The difference between radio stations isn't what it used to be because.. radio can specialize more, and local personalities do not matter so much.
The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated Communist  but instead the people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists -- Hannah Arendt.


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#6
(05-20-2020, 10:59 AM)pbrower2a Wrote: Obviously the only way to get Herbert von Karajan's magnificent recording of Bruckner's eighth symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic is through a recording, as the Maestro died in 1986. Do you like the cinematic performances of Katharine Hepburn? You will need a recording.

Good point, and we wouldn't want to lose that.
Steve Barrera

[A]lthough one would like to change today's world back to the spirit of one hundred years or more ago, it cannot be done. Thus it is important to make the best out of every generation. - Hagakure

Saecular Pages
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