The Telecommunications Land Rush

In the 19th century, with much sweat and blood, immigrant labor gangs pushed a railroad across the newly continental United States. They were followed closely by land speculators laying claim to trackside spots that would become cities and towns. Here’s how it worked: First the American people,

through their government, acquired access to the Western lands. Then the American people, through their government, installed forts and deployed troops to protect the railroad route from the just interference of the robbed and cheated native people. Then, when all the hard work was done, risk-taking entrepreneurs came along and got gloriously rich on all this new terrain.

Something like that has been happening in our day as well. In the last quarter of the 20th century, the American people, through their government, created a worldwide computer network. The architecture and design of the network was perfected by academic researchers (on government grants), machine-heads who were just hacking for the love of it, and various freelance weirdos. Then, when the Web was fast and convenient enough to be useful in most people’s daily lives, the big money people took over.

No surprises here. That’s the way things go in America—the state creates the environment in which people can take care of business for themselves. And it can be argued that the American method has worked pretty well. But nowhere is it written—in our Constitution or our DNA—that private interests must be allowed to pile up their wealth without any consideration for the common good.

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 2000
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