Communicating Europe. Technologies, Information, Events

Fickers, Andreas; Griset, Pascal
Making Europe 5
Anzahl Seiten
XXIV, 485 S.
€ 74,89
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Heidi Tworek, Department of History, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada

Andreas Fickers and Pascal Griset have written a tour de force on communications technologies in Europe from 1800 to the early twenty-first century. The book is the fifth installment of the Making Europe series which has previously examined topics such as expertise, infrastructure, and cartels. This book takes an expansive view at technologies from the telegraph to the Internet across Europe. While the authors are experts on Western Europe and international regulatory institutions, the book incorporates examples and rich material on Scandinavia, Southern Europe, Eastern Europe, and Russia too.

The book combines an overview of developments with fascinating vignettes taken from all around Europe. Amongst many tidbits, we learn that a French statute establishing a state monopoly on telegraphy in May 1837 was the first law to include wording that covered future innovation. Or that Stockholm had the most telephone accessibility per capita anywhere on the planet in 1885. The book also traces short-lived enterprises such as Saar television, highlighting why certain enterprises failed while others underpinned European global dominance during the colonial period.

In so doing, Fickers and Griset do not just reel off the development of successive technologies. Rather, they show how information and communications technologies are intertwined with broader political, economic, and cultural trends. They examine this along four main axes: the material axis, or physical infrastructure like satellite dishes or cables; the economic axis, most frequently manifested as an interaction between the state and private enterprise; the institutional axis, particularly international regulators; the symbolic axis, or how these technologies produced a certain type and space of Europe that was not foreordained.

The book proceeds mostly chronologically. Chapter one examines the balance between the state and private enterprise from the early nineteenth century to the interwar period, especially in telegraphy, telephony, and early wireless. It also highlights paths not taken, such as general hesitancy amongst telegraph administrations (except in Germany) to become involved in telephony. This initially paved the way for private enterprise before the state began to intervene in most European states in the 1880s.

Chapter two explores how the state became involved in telegraphy for military and geopolitical reasons, including to support colonial conquest. It also explores rivalries around the laying of cables, such as between Germany and the United Kingdom around 1900 over transatlantic cables. The authors trace carefully how complicated such rivalries actually were: despite nationalist rhetoric, “German” companies like Felten & Guilleaume Carlswerk Actien-Gesellschaft still had a “strong presence of the British” (p. 81) in projects, as some cables were laid by British firms or certain subsidiaries were founded together with Eastern Telegraph, the major British undersea cable company.

In the third part, they move briskly to wireless telegraphy and broadcasting in radio and television. Here, the authors focus on how these boundary-crossing technologies fostered a European regulatory system through the International Broadcasting Union (IBU) in the interwar period and later successors in Western and Eastern Europe during the Cold War. Eminently fascinating is the case study on standardizing European television and the national agendas behind the debate. Fickers and Griset delve into details around how technologies were regulated to show time and again that “political intervention in a technical standardization debate is neither new nor exceptional, but rather the rule” (p. 3). The authors use case studies in the next chapter to tease out how users might interact with technologies, using examples such as television exchanges through Eurovision in the 1950s. While user reactions can be hard to find, I wondered if there were surveys or opinion polls that might tell us more about how users perceived transnational programming and events. Or if this might have been a place to talk more about how access to communications technologies depended on race, gender, and class.

A particular highlight is Chapter five, as it subverts the common theme of continual connectivity through communications by instead examining the many strategies and practices of stopping exchange. The chapter focuses on jamming radio waves, pirate radio, and hacker culture. These pages showcase what the authors can do best in ranging across time and space. They explore subversive practices ranging from Nazi-orchestrated jamming to stop foreign broadcasts to Polish hacking culture that emerged from the world of gaming.

Chapters six and seven move firmly into the Cold War era, looking at how the state sponsored initial innovation in digitization and then how that became a more European enterprise in the 1980s. At the same time, the United States began to rise rapidly as the main supplier of computing infrastructure, partly due to significant subsidies from the Pentagon from the late 1950s onwards. The final chapter takes a more cultural look at narratives around communications such as the “rhetoric of newness” that seems to accompany every technology.

The authors (rightly!) point out there is no stable definition of Europe, though perhaps this question deserved more attention still. How about Israel’s participation in the Eurovision Song Contest, to name a silly example? More concretely, empire and colonial experiences possibly deserved more consideration. Although chapter two examines European cooperation over wireless in Latin America, the book might have spent more time on how communications technologies enabled imperial conquest and control elsewhere. Or how colonial subjects interpreted the news, as Arthur Asseraf has explored for Algeria.[1] Another angle would have been how empires functioned as a constituent component of seemingly national systems, like the BBC.[2]

While the book already covered a great deal of ground, one area that may have warranted attention was gender. If Charles Babbage is mentioned for imagining the computer in the mid-nineteenth century (pp. 249–50), why not Ada Lovelace too? While chapters six and seven featured five pictures of women working with computers, the role of gender is not explored. Yet women played a crucial role in the development of computing. As Mar Hicks has argued, Britain pushed out women from the industry and thereby lost its dominance.[3] Hicks’ work suggests a rather different explanation than those offered by Fickers and Griset of poor investment in R&D Computers, inability to internationalize, or the rise of the United States’ prowess through the International Business Machines Corporation (IBM), Apple etc.

Overall, Fickers and Griset have written a tremendously useful overview text that is accessible and helpful both to newcomers and experts in the field.

[1] Arthur Asseraf, Electric News in Colonial Algeria, Oxford 2019.
[2] Chandrika Kaul (eds.), Media and the British Empire, Basingstoke 2006; Simon Potter, Broadcasting Empire. The BBC and the British World, 1922–1970, Oxford 2012.
[3] Mar Hicks, Programmed Inequality. How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing, Cambridge, MA 2017; reviewed by Michael Geiss, in: H-Soz-Kult, 16.01.2019, (22.05.2021).