The Wire Devils by MacDougall

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Icon Feb 13, 2010

MacDougall, Robert. “The Wire Devils: Pulp Thrillers, the Telephone, and Action at a Distance in the Wiring of a Nation.”American Quarterly 58, no. 3 (2006): 715-41.


Note: I apologise, the following is disjointed. It is more what I thought were the salient points of the article. There is a copy of the article online (ah, abusing online material provided to students). I recommend reading it if you have the time.


‘The octopus, the spider, the hydra – historians find these images of corporations and the technological networks they built strewn across the culture of the late-nineteenth- and early twentieth century United States like the bones of dinosaurs long extinct.’ (p.715)

MacDougall argues that the depictions of companies as a long-limbed monster is not only a response to size of these organisation, but also of their ‘reach’1. Or rather, of ‘action at a distance’, and the compression of space, and resulting social and economic integration this implies2. He argues his point by using the ‘vernacular literature’ (p.715) of the time: the “wire thriller” and a prolonged advertising campaign run by American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T).

The wire thrillers are used as they illustrate ‘action at a distance’: ‘the ability to act in one place and affect the lives of people in another’ (p. 721). MacDougall takes most of his examples from The Wire Devils by Frank L. Packard3, but states most of the wire thrillers are formulaic.

‘The formula on which the wire thrillers were constructed is straightforward. They are tales of technology, filled with detailed descriptions of the new communication networks and the endless uses to which they might be put… The wire thrillers are stories of commerce and crime, and they present the line between those activities as blurry indeed… All this activity requires detailed explanation, and the prose of the wire thriller is often mired in technical exposition. But exposition was in many ways the point.’ (p.721)

‘Nightmare images of space-destroying octopi [sic]4 and monstrous corporate trusts were never confined to fiction, pulp or otherwise.’ (p. 729)5 MacDougall argues that the metaphors used to represent ‘the wire’ in the wire thrillers and AT&T campaign must be examined as they embody ‘arguments about the nation, and about commerce, power, and the information should flow’ (p. 720).6

AT&T took the ideas of ‘action at a distance’ within the wire thrillers and co-opted it by promoting these as positive ideas (p. 729) by emphasising size, connectivity and economic integration (p. 731). They instead played up the role of the individual within that network. So instead of a giant octopus, there was a giant phone operator (p. 732) as ‘annihilator[s] of space’ (p. 733).

Another argument was that the new technology threatens to change social and physical space (p. 720). However, MacDougall points out, AT&T emphasised the connectivity and integration between the east and west as good, but downplayed that between north and south (p. 735). His argument is that AT&T ‘promised’ its customers – through imagery and metaphor within its advertisements – that the telephone was not a threat to class and race segregation; integration would only be between like groups (p. 737).

The first sentence of the article states: ‘We can remember the monsters of the Gilded Age, but not the horror they once invoked’ (p. 715). I am not convinced this is entirely true. The octopus metaphor is still being used to depict the power and reach of companies. Although perhaps it worth considering7 that there has a ‘renewal’ of the octopus metaphor for multinationals since 1980s with the rise of neoliberalism8. And it is for the same reasons as it was used at the turn of the last century: ‘action at a distance’ and the compression and control of space.

Footnotes:

  1. Emphasis authors. p. 716
  2. Bit deterministic for my taste. But that may be the over zealous response I have to anything that even smells like determinism
  3. Other Wire Thrillers online: The Wire Tappers and Pantom Wires by Arthur Stringer
  4. My pedantic self: Octopuses – the Anglicised version – or octopodes is the correct plural, although octopi is so commonly used it is now almost on par with octopuses
  5. How many opportunities do you get to quote ‘nightmare images of space destroying octopi’?
  6. He notes Benedict Anderson’s ‘imagined community’ of the nation, ‘because no citizens of any modern nation can expect to meet more than a fraction of their fellow’ (p. 720).
  7. that requires further study
  8. As opposed to being used for dehumanising a group such as ‘Jews’, ‘Terrorists’ or ‘Americans’

Response from Rob MacD (July 1, 2009 at 6:40 am)

Hi, Michelle. Thanks for this close and flattering reading of my article… and for alerting me to the correct plural of octopus! I had no idea, but I am happily changing it in my book manuscript.

I take your point that the octopus metaphor is still being used to depict the power and reach of corporations. You would know better than I, but I still suspect it does not have the same oomf. Use of the octopus image today would strike me as kind of quaint, as a kind of second hand reference to the earlier images of the Gilded Age. Yes, people worry about corporations today, but in U.S. political culture at least, I don’t think you’ll find the same sense that big businesses are monstrous _by definition_, which was a not uncommon notion in the late 19th century.

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