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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship Winter 1998

Book Reviews

The Gordian Knot : Political Gridlock on the Information Highway

Nancy H. Fontaine
Information and Education Services Librarian
Biomedical Libraries
Dartmouth College
nancy.h.fontaine@dartmouth.edu

The Gordian Knot : Political Gridlock on the Information Highway, W. Russell Neuman, Lee McKnight, and Richard Jay Solomon.  Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1997. 324 p. cloth $20.00 (ISBN 0-262-14061-6)
The Gordian knot of this new work is the tangled history of monopolies and U.S. government regulations in transportation and communication. The authors' thesis is that the current debate on the National Information Infrastructure (NII) has its historical roots in regulation of other types of infrastructure, a situation which has clouded the discussion and prevented the country's long-term interests from being served.

The authors trace the origin of the current debate to the development of the railroads in the 19th century, when monopolistic practices restrained competition and innovation and government was slow to act. The authors show as well how telephony grew out of telegraphy and its interdependence with the railroads, recounting in some detail the history of AT&T's dealings with the federal government and its novel approach of accepting regulation in exchange for a monopoly position. When radio and television came on the scene, the government sought to regulate content instead of infrastructure, but, the authors argue, the way was still not left clear for competition. Therefore, as in the past, restraint of innovation in the name of profits was helped along by the government.

What should the government do, then, to avoid the mistakes of the past and bring about both competitive advantage in the world marketplace and support the common good? The authors propose an Open Communications Infrastructure (OCI). The gist of this proposal is that government should be involved in the NII, but not by micromanaging companies through regulation. Rather, its proper place is providing goals and ensuring direct competition in the provision of all telecommunication and broadcast services. Today, communications of all types -- sound, video, or text -- can be rendered digitally and transferred via many methods, such as over copper wire, fiberoptics, or satellite transmissions. Therefore, direct competition among the heretofore separate media of print, radio, TV, and telephony has become possible. Such competition is desirable because it would fulfill the goals of the Communication Act of 1934, which the authors like to quote:

"...the enhancement of commerce in communication by wire and radio so as to make available, so far as possible, to all people of the United States, a rapid, efficient, Nation-wide and world-wide wire and radio communication service."

The authors have presented a very interesting argument, with plenty of historical and technical information to back it up. It is scholarly in scope, having an extensive bibliography, many notes, and a detailed subject index. The authors have impressive credentials in the realm of information policy, being from the information policy centers at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The book is not too technical to be accessible, however. The authors' goal is no less than to influence U.S. telecommunications and computer policy, and it is written so as to keep that goal in reach.

The book has some minor flaws. While the authors criticize other overly idealistic approaches to the argument, theirs is perhaps too idealistic as well. They have great faith that competition guided by government goals and restrained from monopolistic practices by the threat of antitrust charges will result in a commercial marketplace reminiscent of the Internet -- a network of networks based on common protocols -- allowing businesses to then compete on the level of content instead of trying to dominate technological standards. They do not address the question of whether such an approach is possible politically, and if it were, it is not clear to this reviewer that it would have the desired effect.

The book suffers from some small redundancies, where the authors sometimes unecessarily repeat points made earlier, but otherwise it is a fine and interesting read. Its interdisciplinary approach places the NII and the Telecommunications Act of 1996 in historical and economic context and is a valuable addition to the debate over the future of telecommunications.

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