Liberating Electronics


Technologies of Freedom, by Ithiel de Sola Pool, Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1983, 291 pp., $20.00.

I recognized Ithiel de Sola Pool as an insightful scholar on the subject of freedom in a technological society when he testified in 1982 at hearings on freedom of expression held by Sen. Robert Packwood's (R–Ore.) Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. Pool made clear then what he reaffirms in his new, tightly written and well-documented book: freedom is a great friend of technological advance; regulation is its enemy.

Pool, a well-known political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, also realizes that technology often presents a challenge to freedom. The temptation of lawmakers is to overreact to that challenge. For example, when television was in its infancy in the mid-1930s and Congress was in a regulatory mood, the Communications Act of 1934 was passed. It imposed restrictions not only on the technological development of the new product but also on its editorial content.

When the First Amendment was adopted in 1791, there were only a handful of newspapers in the United States. Yet the Founding Fathers considered freedom of expression so important to political liberty that they refused to pass any laws abridging freedom of the press. Despite that precedent, New Deal legislators hemmed in a new technology that had the capacity to expand opportunities for expression. The basic structure of that regulation—and certainly the presumption that it is warranted—stands today despite the proliferation of television stations, networks, and cable television systems.

In one chilling section, Pool talks about the "growth of censorship." He begins with an example from 1921 in which an engineer could "cut off speakers in mid-sentence" in a radio broadcast, an event that actually occurred on several occasions. He completes his examination with the implications of court-sanctioned regulation over radio and television.

As Pool notes, court decisions on freedom of expression have been marked by contradictions. For example, in the 1974 Miami Herald case, the Supreme Court protected the print media anew but in 1969, in the Red Lion broadcasting case, upheld restrictions on the electronic media. Pool's quick review of the suppression of freedom in the past and his detailed analysis of the regulation of electronic communication in this century make a compelling historical argument for complete deregulation of the broadcast industry.

But Pool doesn't stop there. He shows us what can happen if current regulations are left in place. The picture is an ugly one whether viewed from the perspective of economic development or of civil liberties. For example, he shows that "authorities everywhere have made the installation or expansion of cable television either illegal or difficult." He dwells on the restrictions placed on cable partly because cable could potentially provide so much useful information to voters and consumers. To restrict cable is to curtail videotext information services valuable to electoral decisionmaking, as well as to curtail such services as telebanking and teleshopping. (Pool's comments would serve as a useful guide to members of Congress now considering cable deregulation.)

Pool's research into the nuances of cable television development and electronic print are original, thorough, and insightful. My bet is that even the informed reader will find new material. The discussion is as current as possible in a time marked by monthly revolutions in electronic technology and regulation. For example, Pool looks to the future to examine possible telephone technology. His presentation regarding the use of fiber optics and an "integrated digital network" makes for fascinating reading. Cellular radio and microwave broadcasts are also discussed, though in less detail. Pool even considers the possibility of cultivated cellulose replacing trees as a source of paper for the print media.

Much of the force of Pool's case for the link between communications technology and freedom comes from his judicious use of startling evidence: "In advanced societies about half of the work force are information processors," he writes. I checked his sources for this flat assertion, and they include an impressive nine-volume study buttressed with another by the Organization for Economic Development.

Pool is also credible because he understands the interrelated nature of the problems he is studying. If Congress is to regulate broadcast content, is it to regulate teletext and videotext? If I publish a newspaper and allow a local cable system to broadcast the text, including editorials and political endorsements, is the text then subject to content regulations? Is USA Today subject to regulation because it is "broadcast" to "stations" throughout the nation for printing? Why can't telephone companies lay the wire for cable television, particularly when they can do it for less money than cable system owners, and also can provide higher-quality cable capable of serving new computer needs?

Technologies of Freedom should be read by all who believe we are on the threshold of a new era, an era where electronic technology will provide undreamed-of services, where diversity and "narrow casting" may resegregate minorities, an era in which legislative reform will be essential if society is going to cope with these new technologies. According to Pool, deregulation of communications technology will unequivocally stimulate technological advance. How those advances will influence social relationships is less predictable. Perhaps the result will be a new independence in which each household becomes more self-sufficient, served by word processors, entertainment centers, teleshoppers, and the like. Whether the predominant effect of this will be isolating or liberating remains to be seen.

Pool's ability to see both the economic and political implications of the new technology serves his readership well. His review of the court cases surrounding the issues is complete and balanced. It is also well documented for the reader who wishes to pursue any of the cases further. And his final summation, replete with recommendations, is satisfying as well as sane.

Craig Smith is president of the Freedom of Expression Foundation in Washington, D.C., and has written numerous articles, as well as several books, on communication.