GUEST COMMENTARY: Placing a call has changed our economy, society and ourselves

2013-09-07T00:00:00Z GUEST COMMENTARY: Placing a call has changed our economy, society and ourselvesBy Arthur I. Cyr nwitimes.com
September 07, 2013 12:00 am  • 

The phones are busy, and so are the companies that design, make and market information devices. As with earlier communications technologies, smartphones are helping to disseminate political power and foster the growth of equality. Overall, however, the interplay between technology and society is complex, and the role of government crucial.

On Sept. 2, Vodafone announced the sale to Verizon Communications of Vodafone’s 45 percent stake in Verizon. The deal involves $130 billion in cash and stock, making this one of the largest commercial transactions in history.

Microsoft, where CEO Steve Ballmer just announced his retirement, has purchased struggling Nokia. That Finnish paper company helped launch the modern mobile phone.

Ballmer’s behemoth, one of the largest corporations in the world, has been taking criticism for lack of innovation while sitting on an Everest of cash. The software giant has fueled the computer revolution since appearing as a startup in the 1970s.

The global smartphone operating system market currently increasingly is defined by Google and Apple. The latter, literally launched in a California garage in the 1970s, pioneered the user-friendly desktop computer.

Cofounder Steve Jobs eventually was forced out in a corporate power struggle, only to return and engineer a brilliant turnaround. The initially novel Apple and Macintosh computers were succeeded by the iPod, iPhone and iPad. The devices grew smaller even as the universe of readily available information rapidly expanded.

Electronic transmission of information -- both voice and visual -- is now characterized by vast rapid change, but in the beginning telephone and computer companies enjoyed much more predictable structured business environments. Major corporations largely controlled stable markets, in contrast to today.

Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, technological change has generated long-term prosperity for the many and enormous concentrated power for the few. John D. Rockefeller and associates brilliantly built Standard Oil Corp. into a principal foundation for the American economy, but monopoly control over almost all U.S. oil and kerosene production in the was also dangerous.

The federal government achieved breakup of Standard Oil in 1911. Investigative journalist Ida M. Tarbell was instrumental in publicizing the practices of the corporation, notably through her book "The History of the Standard Oil Company."

In later years, computer and communications companies also faced federal antitrust prosecution, though none had the frightening power of the original Standard Oil. In 1969, the U.S. Justice Department prosecuted IBM. After years of contention, the government dropped the suit in 1982. Dramatic developments spearheaded by Apple and other personal computer startups were weakening IBM’s hold.

The Feds had more success in attacking telephone giant AT&T. In 1974, the Justice Department launched an antitrust suit. In 1984, the corporation was broken up, mainly into regional companies. Southwestern Bell eventually purchased surviving long-distance carrier AT&T, re-adopted the name, and is now a rival of Verizon.

In 1894, Ida Tarbell moved back to the United States after several years in Paris. Rather than rejoin family in Titusville, Pa., she settled in New York City, a daring move for a single woman.

However, as Steve Weinberg points out in his book about her, "Taking on the Trust," electricity was already transforming life in the great metropolis. Electric trains and lights permitted relatively safe, comfortable travel. Over time, technology was making life easier for the average person. Consumers benefitted from growing freedom of movement.

Investigator Tarbell also made excellent use of the newly available telephone.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin and author of the book, "After the Cold War." He can be reached at acyr@carthage.edu. The opinions are the writer's.

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