Reluctant Power: Networks, Corporations, and the Struggle for Global Governance in the Early 20th Century

By Rita Zajácz, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2019, 392 pages, $40.00 hardcover (ISBN: 9780262042611)

Reluctant Power cover

Rita Zajácz’s Reluctant Power: Networks, Corporations, and the Struggle for Global Governance in the Early 20th Century is a deep examination of the historical roots and political economy of communications and communication policy. Using archival records and multidisciplinary research, Zajácz challenges our understandings of communications history, the major players, and the questions fundamental to the communications network struggles between 1899 and 1934. In doing so, she explicates matters of foreign policy, networks, network governance, and the multinational corporation (MNC), among other significant topics. Of particular importance is Zajácz’s theory of network control.

Network control is a concept based in “decision-making ability” over territory, capital, and technology (2). Authority in these areas allow uninterrupted information flows while at the same time controlling access to information by other parties. In Reluctant Power, Zajácz focuses her examination on the intersection of territory and capital, which she calls the most relevant for understanding global networks. She further considers the two levels of networks control—the tactical and the structural. The tactical level is also the most practical, calling for those attempting to exercise control to assess what they already controlled. The structural level is speculative to the extent that it explores the ability of those wishing to exercise control to use influence in the form of policy and controlling the narrative surrounding communications projects. Both network control levels consider the boundaries of a nation’s power. 

Where national territory is bounded and countries faced resistance from other nations when encroaching with new technology, capital—in the form of MNCs—allowed the expansion of political power. Zajácz, in fact, describes MNCs as playing a critical role in network control, acting as intermediaries for control over physical infrastructure, thereby increasing a country’s control outside of its borders. Once MNCs amassed power, nations had to figure out how to control them as well. Three MNCs, in particular, play significant roles in communications policy during this time: British Marconi, RCA, and ITT. These organizations, fueled by internal and external investments, had to balance the desires of both their home states and those of where they conduct business.  

Zajácz chronicles the expansion of both communication technology and network control. But to do this she makes critical choices and differentiates her book from previous works on communication technology, most importantly, the primary choice to focus on the network instead of the airwaves and, in particular, the global nature of the network industry. Another important choice she makes is to center networks not solely as tools of control but also as initiators of policy and legislation. By considering the MNCs and their roles in network control, Zajácz examines the critical infrastructures that “undergird both industrial development and strategic advancement” (15). 

Of particular importance in Reluctant Power is the role of sea power in the expansion of communications technology and network control. In fact, sea power doctrine was “adapted to the task of controlling the communications infrastructure” (25). Of course, radiotelegraphy and naval capacity have an intertwined history, including requirements for ships to have radio capabilities on-board. Zajácz makes sure to analyze the role of the US Navy in shaping communications policy as well as its takeover of networks for wartime and strategic purposes. 

Overall, though an examination of an important period of communications history, Reluctant Power is also an analysis of power and imperialism. Zajácz’s thorough history demonstrates how communications, communications technology, and control over global networks follow a pattern well-known throughout history, which has lasting impacts. This story started with British power over communications networks, soon reluctantly usurped by the United States, which has maintained a form of dominance over global communications and technological innovations, much of the time exported in the form of media and technology organizations like Facebook, Google, and Amazon. Though not a coordinated effort, the expansion of these tech MNCs throughout the globe exports American business, legal, and cultural values, sometimes influencing the sites of expansion.  

There has been, however, quite the backlash against the export of this kind of power, particularly as of late, with countries like India rejecting Facebook’s Free Basics—a mobile version of the Facebook platform that would have allowed text-based access to the social media site as well as health, government, employment, and other sites. Google, too, has found itself embroiled in lawsuits over failure to adequately respond to “Right to be Forgotten” requests. These are two of many examples of the conflicts in which US-based tech MNCs find themselves entangled. At the same time, they offer indications that there may be several cracks in US influence over global communication technology. If Zajácz, and other historians, offer any indication, these conflicts may signal the erosion of United States dominance. 

 Jasmine E. McNealy, University of Florida