Wiring to the Futurernby Gregory McNameernNews Over the Wiresrnby Menahem BlondheimrnCambridge: Harvard University Press;rn305 pp., $39.95rnThe current debate over the so-calledrncyberstream, the data highway thatrnfuturists promise will lead us to a technoutopia,rnhas many people bewildered, sorndense is it with rhetoric and empty assertion.rnThis is not surprising: most ofrnthe debate is filled by boosters of gadgetryrnon the one hand, by neo-Ludditesrnon the other. Neither side has quite figuredrnout the real, beneficial uses of arnbroadened information network (theyrnare many, although the vaunted 500 TVrnchannels of times to come are notrnamong them), and neither has identifiedrnsome of the real problems associatedrnwith a nation of computer-monitorrnzombies.rnEcclesiastes has already reminded usrnthat there is nothing new under the sun,rnand our culture’s headlong disappearancerninto the data vortex is no exception.rnIn his thorough study News Over thernWires, the Israeli social historian MenahemrnBlondheim brings to life the swid ofrndebate over a similar technological transformationrnthat took place in America arncentury before the present era of innovationrnand upheaval. Charting therngrowth of the telegraph industry and itsrneffect on the course of public informationrnfrom 1844 to 1897, Blondheimrnoffers a cautionary tale of the media’srnpower to sanitize political discourse,rnheighten tensions between contendingrngroups, and serve itself before the commonrngood. Students of the current electronicrnmelee would do well to read hisrnfindings.rnIn 1790, Blondheim notes, the averagerninterval between an event’s occurrencernin Washington and its reportage inrnBoston was an astonishing 18 days: butrnthese were times, he goes on to note,rnwhen a newspaper editor could close anrnissue by writing, “We stop the press tornannounce that there is no news, and nornmore expected,” when a slow periodrnmeant that an urban weekly couldrnsimply skip an issue without anyonernblinking. (Even late in the 19th century.rnpapers short on news were filled by happyrncustom with biblical passages, noteworthyrnspeeches, and homilies. Papersrntoday are just as short on real news, butrnfilled out with display advertising, stockrnreports, gossip, and comics.) Contemporaryrnreaders and editors alike were lessrnsure than we that some big event mightrnbreak at any moment, and the early yearsrnof the Republic had a decidedly unfranticrncast.rnBy the I840’s, however, telegraphrnwires had been strung over much of thernEastern seaboard, whence they soon radiatedrninto the American interior. Theirrninitial use was commercial, largely tornenable merchants to report the arrivalrnof expected shipments into port and tornsecure orders for newly debarked goods.rnSomewhere along the line New York’srngrowing daily newspapers realized thatrnthe telegraph could be put to their usesrnas well, ushering into journalistic historyrnthe notion of the scoop. “News reporters,”rnBlondheim writes, “appearedrnin the telegraph offices hours or evenrndays in advance of anticipated information,rnequipped with the Good Book, andrnhad the obliging operator commencernall their messages with ‘In the beginning.rn. . .’ [An editor] testified thatrnoccasionally the operator approachedrnthe end of Deuteronomy before he wasrnpresented with newsier text for transmission.”rnMonopolizing the wires may havernbeen infra dig by some lights, but journalistsrnand telegraphers alike soon realizedrnthat theirs was an inevitable partnership.rnIn 1846 elements from bothrncamps merged to form the New YorkrnAssociated Press, an agency that, like thernAssociated Press of today, issued releasesrnin “journalese” (a simplified, formulaicrnlanguage made standard for the telegrapher’srnconvenience).rnBlondheim excavates a few wonderfulrnstories in connection with the AP’srngrowth. One involves a mysteriousrnyoung woman who wandered into a telegraphrnoffice, sent a message to Baltimore,rnand disappeared into the streets ofrnNew York after receiving a reply. Afterwardrnsomeone cut the wires between therntwo cities. Some months later the womanrnreappeared, with the same results.rnThe AP editors may have been withoutrntheir customary news for a short time,rnbut their wallets thickened all the same:rnBlondheim speculates that they were usingrntheir virtual monopoly to speculaternon the commodities market, cuttingrntheir own wires to deny other parties thernlatest shipping news. He is just as goodrnin his account of the arduous race to layrna trans-Atlantic telegraph cable in midcentury,rnoffering the interesting tidbitrnthat in 1866 each word wired from Londonrnto New York cost a staggering fiverndollars in gold.rnKarl Marx likely had the telegraph inrnmind when he penned one of his fewrnlovely phrases, “All that is solid melts intornair.” The data highway of today takesrnus further into the ethereal. For thatrnreason, I wish that Blondheim had takenrna bit more leisure to examine the parallelsrnbetween the period of his study andrnthe present, or at least the technologicalrntransformations of American society afterrnWorid War II. A more broadly comparativernview would have brought NewsrnOver the Wires a wider readership. As itrnis, tucked inside the series Harvard Studiesrnin Business History, it may be ignored.rnThat would be a shame, for thisrnis a good, provocative book that has bearingrnon more than one unsettled time.rnGregory McNamee’s most recent book isrnGila: The Life and Death of anrnAmerican River (Crown PubUshers).rnLET USrnKNOWrnBEFORErnYOU GO!rnTo assure uninterrupted delivery ofrnCHRONICLES please notify us inrnadvance. Send change of address on thisrnform with the mailing label from yourrnlatest issue of CHRONICLES to:rnSubscription DepartmentrnCHRONICLESrnP.O. Box 800rnMount Morris, Illinois 61054rnAUGUST 1994/37rnrnrn