A Networked Society


downtown los angeles


To facilitate this urban dispersal, President Dwight D. Eisenhower spearheaded the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 to ensure the construction of the world’s first transcontinental highway system. Eisenhower was alarmed by the congested nature of existing roads and felt that they were a hazard, with “appalling inadequacies to meet the demands of catastrophe or defense, should an atomic war come.” After the Act, highway designers would studiously avoid city centers or other areas that could be targets of nuclear attack. In proposing the Act to Congress, Eisenhower argued that it was America’s destiny to be a networked society:

Our unity as a nation is sustained by free communication of thought and by easy transportation of people and goods. The ceaseless flow of information throughout the republic is matched by individual and commercial movement over a vast system of interconnected highways crisscrossing the country and joining at our national borders with friendly neighbors to the north and south. Together, the united forces of our communication and transportation systems are dynamic elements in the very name we bear—United States. Without them, we would be a mere alliance of many separate parts.

Calling for 41,000 miles of highway to be constructed across the United States in order to interconnect all of its major cities and industrial areas and to establish better links with strategic points in Canada and Mexico, the Act would be the largest building project ever undertaken and would assure the transformation of the United States to a dispersed posturban field.

Concentrated cores dominated not only the physical but also the telecommunicational realm. Dispersal of the latter would prove more difficult. From the start of the Bell system in the late nineteenth century, individual telephones have been connected to exchanges at a neighborhood “Company Office” (to this day, the distance from the Company Office determines the maximum speed of a DSL connection). In turn these exchanges link to a switching station in the city center, where the greatest concentration of phones can be found. Central switching stations in disparate cities would be linked by long distance lines that, beginning in the 1910s, were multiplexed, that is, able to transmit multiple simultaneous messages over a single cable”— technology first developed by General George Owen Squier, then Chief Signal Officer of the Army’s Signal Corps and the future founder of the Muzak Corporation.

After World War II, rising demand for bandwidth and a mounting fear of the havoc nuclear war would wreak on continuous wire connections led telecommunication engineers to develop microwave transmission for long distances. In 1947, the first microwave line was deployed between the headquarters of AT&T’s Long Lines Department at 32 Avenue of the Americas and the Bowdoin Square building of the New England Telephone and Telegraph through seven intermediately spaced relay stations. The experiment was a success and during the 1950s and early 1960s, AT&T moved to micro wave towers for a large part of its Long Lines network. Adopting the motto “Communications is the foundation of democracy,” AT&T saw Long Lines as a crucial defense mechanism in the Cold War. Flagpoles adorned each installation, but this was not mere bluster. Long Lines installations were hardened against nuclear blasts with some even built underground. Microwave horns were covered with protective shields to prevent fallout from contaminating electronics within and shielded in copper against electromagnetic pulses targeted to disrupt electronic communications. In 1962, AT&T launched Telstar, the world’s first commercial communications satellite, which they hoped would permit connections between any two points on the earth at any time and further increase communications survivability after atomic war. Ironically, Telstar would fail early due to radiation from Starfish Prime, a high altitude nuclear test conducted by the United States Army the day before Telstar’s launch.