Lines of power: Availability to networks as a social phenomenon
First Monday

Lines of power: Availability to networks as a social phenomenon by David A. Banks

More than a semantic difference, investigating what it means to be online or offline shines light on the contours and configurations of digitally augmented life (Jurgenson, 2011). Through the analysis of primary and secondary sources, this essay traces the origin of the terms online and offline to the early railroad industry where “the line” was a powerful orienting image. I propose that rather than an individual binary status; online/offline distinctions are more accurately described as a communal social relationship. This paper will argue that, rather than boycotts or similar market solutions, users are best served by following the historical example of railroads and fighting for democratized administrative control over networks.


Origins and early uses of online/offline distinctions in railroads
Origins and early uses of online/offline distinctions in computer networks
Common features, fears and problems of being online
Fighting to stay offline




There is no shortage of metaphors for describing the Internet, and yet none of them accurately depict the relationship between people and technology that produces the seemingly binary states of “online” and “offline.” When someone is said to be offline is she, to use the parlance of the late 1990s, “away from keyboard” or must one actively leave devices and remain out of earshot of notifications in order to be truly disconnected from a digital network? More than a semantic difference, investigating what it means to be online or offline shines light on the contours and configurations of digitally augmented life (Jurgenson, 2011). It speaks directly to issues of fairness, surveillance, and identity performance in a time when all three of these are mediated and at times created through digital networks.

Online is often invoked to connote deeply embedded relationships among new media, social interactions, and/or communities (Jones, 1998; Howard and Jones, 2004; Horst and Miller, 2012; boyd, 2014) but the word is rarely given its own, explicit operational definition within social science texts. Even if online or offline is in the title of a book, it rarely makes it into the index. Online as an idea is just about as ubiquitous and intangible as the human-machine relationship it seeks to describe.

This paper, through an analysis of primary and secondary historical documents, traces the etymology of the online/offline dichotomy to its original usage as an indicator of whether or not a city, factory, or mine was accessible by a particular train line (Markham, 1926; Oxford English Dictionary, 2004) and, from this historical perspective, argues that the offline/online dichotomy be reconsidered as a social relationship rather than a binary state of an individual. The online/offline social relationship is made with human and non-human actors and displays a range of power disparities. To that end, this paper will give special emphasis to moments when communities fought to attain or retain their online status, actively refuse the imposition of online status, or fought to somehow regulate the behavior of the network. It is my contention that today’s struggles for and against digital network access can learn a great deal from past controversies surrounding the establishment and governance of railroads [1].

While I will be addressing discreet technologies (e.g., railroads, trains, computers, the Internet) throughout the paper, it should be remembered that the railroad marks the beginning of the same industrial process of global communication and transportation standardization that the Internet has carried forth into a new century. Given that many telecommunications lines continue to run down the right-of-way corridors originally laid out by railroads, this connection is more than conceptual or theoretical: online/offline relationships may have changed in their resolution, speed, and character but many of the laws, social conventions, discourse, and culture remain remarkably similar. Put another way, a sociologist might say railroads and the Internet share a “social world.”

Perhaps more important than any one particular battle or technology is the much larger discussion of what it means to live in a world where some people have access to a very powerful network and others do not. In that sense, we are all living in a world that is shaped by virtue of the option of being online. Therefore off-line states are not necessarily about a total removal or separation from a network, but rather a configuring of relationships such that the network’s influence on the subject is weakened. Being “offline” rarely means the existence of the network has no effect on you: farmers miles away from a railroad still found themselves influenced by the standardization of time zones and poor people without a reliable Internet connection still find their lives influenced by computer networks. This will become clearer as I describe specific efforts to remain online or offline.

What exactly does it mean then, to say that a person or even a whole society is “online”? Is someone online if they have a smartphone sleeping in their pocket? What if they are one of the several thousand Americans that still makes infrequent use of a dial-up connection (Pew Research Center, 2013a, 2013b)? Certainly a weekly dial-up excursion to a 10-year-old e-mail account is qualitatively different than documenting and sharing an entire day with the aid of a camera on a smartphone, and yet both could be reasonably described as “online activity.” Similarly, there are not any hard and fast rules about claiming a restaurant is “on the A line”, but anyone that has seen two New Yorkers argue about directions knows that such claims are infinitely contestable. Perception of distance to these kinds of vectors is deeply subjective (Lynch, 1960). Therefore, there are no easy answers to the questions I have just posed, but understanding online/off-line as a social relationship that has a history and geography can go a long way in answering versions of these questions in more specific contexts.

I will begin with two brief histories of railway and digital networks as they relate to “online” and “offline” states of being. In these histories I am tracing the historical contingencies that made the online/offline distinction useful and legible. Next, I will describe the legal, social, cultural, and technological phenomena that continue to mutually shape one-another as technological systems bring more things and people online. These include world-shrinking; radical reconfigurations of attention and perception; panic about social mores and the morality of women and children; and, concerns over authenticity and the natural. Not only does the history of the railroad offer a rich source of teachable moments that can be applied to future struggles over governing the Internet, I contend that what we face today are old controversies in new wrappers.

This paper will conclude with prescriptive recommendations, based on historical comparisons of controversies over access to digital and locomotive networks, and argue that rather than boycotts or similar market solutions users are best served by fighting for democratized administrative control over these systems, or directly taking the sorts of public goods that they are entitled to. I will highlight moments where online and off-line statuses were highly contested and describe the means by which groups of people were brought online or actively kept offline. Such processes are rarely democratic, and yet these systems can have radically democratizing effects once they are widely available. Given this somewhat paradoxical feature of networks, I offer prescriptive recommendations to both reformers and radicals who are united in their concern for self-determination and the governance of large technical systems. While positive work can be done incrementally through conventional halls of power, there is also historical precedent that strongly suggests that direct actions are particularly effective at making technical systems more available to future democratic governance.

What follows is, admittedly, constrained in geography and thus subject position. I am focusing on the implementation of these technologies in the United States and the United Kingdom only. The time frames under investigation begin in 1810 with the first commercially viable steam-powered locomotives and continue on through 2015.

There is a danger in choosing these frames: the western focus reinforces the notion that breakthroughs in technology and social organization have only come from these Anglophone countries, and that all other societies are mere adopters (Eglash, 1999; Burrell, 2012, 2011; Philip, et al., 2012). Further research in this topic must situate this analysis as one of many different stories that might be told about humans’ relationship to their networked creations. There are undoubtedly unique and equally generalizable observations to be made about similar networks in many other spaces.

Additionally, while reasonable people could disagree as to whether an investigation such as this should give more consideration to highways and telephone networks, I have chosen to focus primarily on railroads and the Internet for two reasons. First, because they act as “bookends” to a 200-year-old struggle between democratic governance and the technological affordances of global communication. Comparing the beginning and present frontier of this debate elucidates how much has changed and how much has remained the same in this long-standing controversy. Second, there are specific historical controversies over the governance and expansion of railroads that are directly applicable to today’s debates over digital network governance. Telegraph lines are closely connected to the development of railroads and so these networks will be covered in some depth as well.

In the next three sections I will describe the mutually shaping technological affordances and social relationships that are typically in play when we describe things and people as “offline” and “online.” First by describing the origins and contours of the online/off-line binary, then tracing its evolution from a description of available physical resources to the accessibility of information, followed by a discussion of cross-cutting themes that arise during the early adoption of the railroad and the Internet. In the final section I will make use of this comparison by suggesting future avenues for activism around democratizing the Internet.



Origins and early uses of online/offline distinctions in railroads

The railroad was not so much a breakthrough in the construction of self-propelling machines as it was a harnessing of steam power. Early steam engines required massive amounts of fuel nearby, making a moving engine impractical if not physically impossible. When the earliest train was put into operation shuttling coal out of mines, a reporter on the scene saw a novel application of an experimental technology, not a wholly new invention: “... a steam engine has been mounted on wheels in Leeds, making it move on rails, by means of a large cogwheel” [2].

What the reporter saw was a relatively short track that made an almost perfect line out of the mine. Describing something as being “on the line” was a fairly literal description for the first few decades of British railroads. On a pragmatic level, a straight line meant it was the shortest distance between two points, which was necessary given the lack of buyable land, and raw steel and timber necessary to lay the tracks. Labor was also cheap, which meant the construction of tunnels, embankments, cuttings, and viaducts was much cheaper than laying track around obstacles (Schivelbusch, 1986).

Wolfgang Schivelbusch, in his definitive social history of nineteenth century British and American railroads The railway journey makes it clear that the line, was both a practical and conceptual innovation. The replacing of animals, who needed rough terrain to dig their hooves into, with steam engines meant that, “the mechanically perfect road could be realized without compromise” [3]. This also meant that as the small but noticeable bumps and curves of the road were removed in favor of the clean lines of the railroad. “the traveler felt that he lost contact with the landscape,” [4] further adding to the sense that one was experiencing abstracted motion itself. The famed philosopher of technology Lewis Mumford also notes that “Perhaps the only scientific work that steadily and systematically affected ... [early industrial revolution] design was the analysis of the elements of mechanical motion itself” [5].

While British railroads continued along linear trajectories, their American counterparts, who could build track for a tenth of the price but were constantly at pains to marshal enough labor and machinery, laid their tracks in sweeping arcs around major geographic features whenever possible (Schivelbusch, 1986; Gordon, 1996). Despite this difference in track construction, both American and British railroad operators described regularly serviced routes as a “line.”

Online, as a neologism for “on the line” first appeared in American industry trade journals around 1920, and referred specifically to places that were directly accessible by train. The Oxford English Dictionary recognizes C.H. Markham’s paper in the January 1926 issue of Economic Geography as an exemplary use of the word. Markham writes: “Approximately two-thirds of the coal handled by the [Illinois Central] system originated at on-line mines, and one-third was received from connections” [6].


Google Ngram data
Figure 1: Google Ngram data on uses of “on-line”, “online”, “off-line”, and “offline”.


Markham does not claim to be introducing any new terminology within his paper, indicating that “on-line” is either not new or comprehensible enough to the average reader of his expected audience. Google Ngram data (Figure 1) suggests that there were scattered and infrequent uses of “on-line”, “online”, “off-line”, and “offline” prior to 1920 but samples of this pre-1920 data indicate that many of these are false positives (e.g., phrases such as “on time” mistakenly digitized as “online”). Regardless, in 1910 “online” accounted for 0.0000016976 percent of all scanned words compared with 0.0000048637 percent in 1923. This nearly 200 percent increase of “online” after 1920 and the recognition of Markham’s article by the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that this is when the word came into serious usage.

1920 also coincides with the height of American railroad activity. According to the historian Sarah Gordon, “by 1907 the United States had the maximum number of railroad companies that ever would operate: 1,564. By 1930 it had the most miles of track in operation that it ever would have: 429,883. After these dates, the numbers began a slow but inexorable decline” [7]. Markham was writing at the zenith of American railroad activity and while he may not be the originator of the term he is certainly a normative example of how practitioners characterized railroads’ relationships to their terminal points.

“Off-line” is also found in the Markham text as a reference to resources that are serviced by other lines or riverboats and transferred over to the Illinois Central via a connection:

“A study of the railway map of the United States will disclose the strategic geographical position of the Illinois Central System with reference to off-line domestic trade and to foreign commerce. Aside from the products originating on its own lines, this railroad, owing to its location with respect to the great markets and ports of the Mississippi Valley, draws a vast tonnage from connecting lines.” [8]

On-line in this usage is specific to a proprietary system. A port or mine could be on-line with reference to the Union Pacific or the Ohio, but it is off-line with reference to the Illinois Central, even if there is a connection between the two lines. Indeed, Markham frequently refers to connections as the only other way resources enter the system other than an on-line origin point.

While Markham is strictly referencing natural resources, people and places are also talked about in terms of off and on the line. This is partially because technocratic operators of railroad companies made little distinction between passengers and goods. According to Schivelbusch: “Travel by rail, being pulled by the power of steam, was experienced as a participation in an industrial process. For the lower classes this experience was quite immediate: in England they were transported in open boxcars on freight trains, up to the 1840s. They were regarded not as recipients of passenger service but as freight goods” [9]. The prominent culture critic John Ruskin called railroad passengers “human parcels” and noted how, just like a postal service, the train sought to leave their passengers nearly unchanged from the journey itself (Schivelbusch, 1986).

For those living in cities, on the other hand, the urban landscape changed dramatically with the introduction of inter-city railroad transportation. Cities that were “on the line” quickly found themselves with brand new problems regarding safety, economic regulation, and quality of life. Early railroad terminals were built on the outskirts of the city in industrial areas. This was, and in some cities still is, the case for two reasons: first trains and the steam that powered them were still conceptually and materially tied to other industrial machines that were loud, dirty, and in need of coal and other supplies that trains brought to the city. Train terminals were also very large facilities, which meant a great deal of cheap, contiguous land was needed and often only found on the outskirts near factories. Eventually, as cities continued to grow around what used to be the outskirts, cities buried their train lines and erected union stations that housed multiple lines (Schivelbusch, 1986; Gordon, 1996; Hall, 2002).

A resident of a large city like London or Chicago might have a dozen or so railroad lines to choose from but access to the capital and services that railroads attracted were unevenly distributed within the city. Services that sought the money of travelers vied for increasingly more expensive land around train stations or began to offer bus services directly to and from the station. By 1910 a new kind of train was rising in popularity: the electric streetcar and the underground subway. “In many respects,” Gordon writes “urban mass transit was the last frontier of the railroad system” [10].

Cities at the turn of the twentieth century were over-crowded, dirty, and dangerous. Streetcars, subways, elevated light rail lines, and other intra-city transportation systems were crucial elements of a larger effort to spread out urban populations while retaining the benefits of urban scale. It is no coincidence that urban planning and mass transit were invented at the same time, as one required the other to work properly (Fishman, 1982; Hall, 2002). By 1940 the mechanical, Newtonian logic that was born out of the coal mine had disciplined every major western city. The organic curves and regional time scales had been replaced with universal time tables and clearly defined lines. Millions of people, whether they were referring to the London Underground or the Santa Fe Railroad, could say they were on-line.



Origins and early uses of online/offline distinctions in computer networks

The view from a mid-nineteenth century train car was a bit like a film reel. The view was fuzzy to the eyes of someone who had never travelled sustained distances faster than they could walk and what they could see was divided in uniform increments by the telegraph poles that shared the right-of-way with the tracks. Communication lines and railway lines were, as Schivelbusch describes it, “one great machine covering the land” [11]. Writers of the time, he also notes, likened telegraph networks to the nervous system: a critical yet ultimately ancillary system to a larger industrial body. One that warned the body of danger by sensing the placement of individual trains and coordinated passage through long, dark tunnels and across vast distances.

Indeed, the line of the train, is the line of the telegraph, the telephone, and ultimately the Internet. Trains, as the previous section concluded, did prove to be ubiquitous in their influence on time and space, but the physical locomotive did not do it alone. Instantaneous communication lines and locomotives mutually shaped one another. The telegraph was born without an immediately practical purpose. It was only when large amounts of goods and people could be conveyed across the landscape were short, instantaneous messages made useful (Schivelbusch, 1986; Fields, 2004).

“‘On the line’ was common in reference to phone calls: ‘joe is on the line.’” Recalls Vint Cerf, “The term [online] applied to data networks and remote timesharing could go back to the early 1960s when connecting to a time shared machine may well have been referred to as ‘being online’” [12].

The Oxford English Dictionary recognizes a passage in High-speed computing devices as the first use of online in reference to computer systems. Originally published in 1950 and reprinted in 1984 it was published as a “compendium of technologies applicable to the emerging field of electronic digital computers” [13]:

“In on-line operation the input is communicated directly and without delay to the data-reduction device. For other applications, off-line operation involving automatic transcription of data in a form suitable for later introduction to the machine, may be tolerated.” [14]

The line in this case is far less straightforward than it was with the Markham text. In order to understand what line is being referenced above, one must know what sorts of devices were used at the time and how they communicated with one another and their human operators. Access to computers’ processing power was extremely scarce and so operators would feed multiple queued programs in a single batch. “In the typical programming cycle,” writes historian of technology Janet Abbate

“... the user of a batch processing computer would begin by writing out a program on paper. Then the user or a keypunch operator would punch holes in a set of computer cards to represent written instructions. The user would bring the deck of punched cards to the computer center, where an operator would feed them into a punched-card reader and transfer the data to magnetic tape. When the computer became available, the operator would load the tape and run its batch of programs, and eventually he or she would return a print out of the results to the various programmers.” [15]

Each one of these steps was accomplished on dedicated hardware connected via local networks that spanned buildings and campuses. Real-time computing — having instantaneous access to the processing unit from your terminal — was synonymous with a network of devices that provided instant feedback to the user (Abbate, 1999). Something approaching real-time computing would come in the 1960s. A central processing unit would accept commands from multiple terminals and cycle through the multiple requests for processing, instead of running one person’s program from start to finish. “Time sharing” as it was called relied on a terminal that was set up to interact with a stand-alone processing unit. Such terminals were generally said to be “on-line” when they were interacting with the processor (Abbate, 1999; Reed, 2014; Cerf, 2014).

The jump from on-line referring to real-time access to scarce processor power to actively using a personal computer that is connected to the Internet is a relatively recent development that coincides with the flourishing of local area networks (LANs) in the late 1970s and early 1980s. David P. Reed, one of the developers of the TCP/IP protocol, recounts:

“... a user was ‘online’ if he/she could process information and produce additional information back to the computer! A user was ‘offline’ if he/she was not watching, but was instead somewhere else, perhaps coming back later to get the results of a job, or to start using the system. ...”

“Sometime in the early ‘Compuserve era,’ I started hearing the slang usage (which sounded quite odd to someone who had been in the business) of information being ‘online’ when the information was stored in a computer system somewhere that could be ‘dialed up’. And even later, of users being ‘online’ when they had accounts on computers or were using something like ‘America *On-Line *[sic]’. Notice that it was the information that was on-line before the idea that users were ‘online’ when they had an account.” [16]

Reed’s recollections match the Oxford English Dictionary’s dating of different uses for the word, Google’s Ngram database, and Abbate’s history of the Internet. Using “online” to describe a person, information, or service available through a network, according to the OED, appears as early as 1979, just as use of the word “online” begins to skyrocket and surpass its hyphenated predecessor as shown in Figure 1. This was also precisely the time that CompuServ took off as a major end-user platform, followed by America Online (note the lack of a hyphen) (Abbate, 1999).

By the time Mosaic, the first graphical Web browser, launched in 1993 Internet users had spent over 30 years using on(-)line to refer to the active access of data. Until July of 2003, most American internet users connected via a dial-up connection (Vara, 2004). The telephone line, a direct descendant of the telegraph, was most likely the line that kept that term in use. It is clear then, that the “line” that caused the meteoric rise in the usage of “online” was the telephone line and the higher bandwidth connections that followed it. What is less clear, and may be too over-determined to ever definitively locate, is how we arrived at the broader term that seems to simultaneously mean “over” and “available on” a network. I will pick this thread back up in the next section where I investigate the crosscutting legal, cultural, and social themes that tend to resurface when large technical systems take on a noticeably different character.

Thinking about online statuses as both contextual and continuous is an important point that I will turn to in the next section but for now it suffices to say that digital online/offline distinctions are at their most complicated when connections are always on and available in ever-smaller devices.



Common features, fears and problems of being online

The offline/online dichotomy should be reconsidered as a social relationship among groups, rather than a binary state of an individual. Technologies, especially when many people rely on them, tend to change social habits rather than simply augment or mediate them. The option to be online is not only a personal choice, it is an organizational phenomenon that effects the user and the non-user alike. Nowhere is this seen more acutely than life under the precisely measured time brought about by continental railroads. “Under capitalism,” observed Lewis Mumford, “time-keeping is not merely a means of coordinating and interrelating complicated functions: it is also like money an independent commodity with a value of its own. The school teacher, the lawyer, even the doctor ... conform their functions to a timetable almost as rigorous as that of the locomotive engineer” [17]. Technologies like the timetables and the trains that rely on them, made it possible to control people at never before seen scales and magnitudes.

Boosters for networks generally speak to the inevitability and forward momentum of technological development and either conflate new technologies with social progress or contend that the former will determine the latter (Marx, 1987; Herkert and Banks, 2012). Why might someone resist inclusion to a network that purports to solve problems and reconfigure space and time for the benefit of its users? Skeptics of these networks generally come from the extremely privileged and the marginalized portions of societies. Skeptics may spin romanticized histories of the world prior to the invention of the network to illustrate the alienation they perceive from the network, generate concern about how these networks fundamentally change peoples or society, and draw attention to how existing social stratification is reified, exaggerated, or dangerously undermined. Others may point out, like Mumford was wont to do, that while new devices sometimes saved effort or time, “an elaborate mechanical organization is often a temporary and expensive substitute for an effective social organization or for a sound biological adaptation” [18]. In truth, there might be just as many reasons to refuse availability to the network as there are people doing the refusing. There are however, very common social phenomena associated with rail and computer networks that are worth describing here in moderate detail.

What will follow are historical accounts of the advancement of technological systems paired with arguments pulled from the popular media of that time. Such public conversations about the present and assumed future of technology should not be dismissed as mere speculation, fear, or public relations because these texts actually have a very tangible and direct influence on the near-present research and development of that technology (Herkert and Banks, 2012).

More than any other feature, railroads and the Internet have both been lauded as technologies that let us transcend time and space. The most recent round of proclamations that global networks are shrinking the world are rooted in Marshall McLuhan’s (2011) assessment in the Gutenberg galaxy that electronic information technology was creating a “global village” through instantaneous communication. Thirty years later, writing at the cusp of widespread adoption of the World Wide Web, Nicholas Negroponte proclaimed that “The digital planet will look and feel like the head of a pin” [19]. Such assessments today are prosaic, if not contradictory to the scholarly work being done in the areas of post-colonial computing (Philip, et al., 2012) and marginalized user bases (Eubanks, 2011; Burrell, 2012), but still make up a good deal of the common language used to talk about information technology.

Trains (and their telegraph lines) promised a similar kind of annihilation of time and space. Schivelbusch quotes an 1839 Quarterly Review article in which the author breathlessly extols the cosmological powers of steam-powered ships to “suddenly dry up the great Atlantic ocean to less than half its breadth. ... The Mediterranean, which is now only a week from us, has before our eyes shrunk into a lake ... and the great lakes of the world are rapidly drying into ponds!”

The author goes on to predict that railroads will do the same for the land, turning England into something, “not much bigger than one immense city” [20]. In order to shrink something though, a technological system must be able to grasp it. Globe shrinking, in other words, can only be done by global systems. Theorist and historian Thomas P. Hughes observed that at their most basic, large technological systems are amalgamations of physical artifacts, organizations, scientific artifacts, legislative artifacts, and natural resources that “solve problems or fulfill goals using whatever means are available and appropriate; the problems have to do mostly with reordering the physical world in ways considered useful or desirable, at least by those designing or employing a technological system” [21]. These systems “manage increasingly to incorporate environment into the system, thereby eliminating sources of uncertainty” [22].

Inventors and entrepreneurs under capitalism, according to Hughes, can also hedge their bets against uncertain conditions beyond the system’s reach by diversifying a system and creating redundancies (e.g., investing in multiple industries instead of just one) and building the capacity to weather “peak loads.” A peak load is a short burst of increased network activity — mobile phone usage during a disaster or electricity during a heat wave — that if left unaccounted for can bring the network to its knees. Those that manage and control large technical systems, whether they are made up of rails or fiber optic cables, seek out standardization so that their vast networks become more predictable. Telegraph and railroad networks are no exception and their standardization and centralization happened very rapidly. In 1850 there were thousands of railroad and telegraph companies. By 1860 there were still seven different gauges of track and three different competing telegraph technologies. By 1880s not only had all of these been consolidated and standardized into national systems, corporations and governments had also standardized time zones from 200 different local times and 80 different railroad times into a single universal time zone system (Fields, 2004).

Due to this predictability seeking behavior, the popular notion that corporations are inherently allergic to regulation is largely false. In fact, corporations regularly lobby for regulations as a means of enforcing standards that they cannot do themselves through market dominance. In the United States, by the 1850s, railroad companies had started petitioning the U.S. Congress to adopt national guidelines that would help transform regional and incompatible networks into a single, standard national transportation network. Such standards promised continued competition for online resources, but would eliminate some of its worst effects on connections. Between 1870 and 1900 railroads not only sought standardization of track gauges and time scales, they also created standards for ticketing, baggage fees, the structure of train cars, and even the rules governing the behavior of passengers. Some of these standards were agreed upon through industry associations, some were enforced through laws. Those that refused to be compatible with large railroad companies, usually small rural lines, lasted into the early twentieth century but were cut off from future growth (Gordon, 1996).

Railroads are often touted as one of the more powerful forces for settling the North American continent but research actually shows that the presence of rail lines slowed the growth of small towns in the Midwest between 1900 and 1930. The rural sociologist Katherine J. Curtis White, in a thorough study of early twentieth century Great Plains counties, found that the presence of a railway severely reduced a county’s population increases. Between 1900 and 1910, counties without railroads increased in population by 213 percent while counties with a railroad only increased by 30 percent. Between 1920 and 1930, counties with a railroad increased in population by 11 percent but counties without railroads increased by 112 percent (White, 2007). She suggests that railroads effectively turned rural counties into hinterlands servicing larger urban centers, whereas isolation from train lines created the opportunity for somewhat economically independent small towns.

Very similar tendencies toward standardization and centralization can be seen in the history of the Internet. Regional and proprietary networks eventually became interchangeable and compatible or were relegated to eventual obsolescence. Standards came from a mix of industry association guidelines (e.g., Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) and laws (Zittrain, 2008). The algorithms that sort social media newsfeeds, ads, and more “behind the scenes” data architectures also require very standardized replies to forms that establish predictable users bases that can yield forecastable revenue (Pasquale, 2015).

With standardization comes interchangeability. American railroad companies were originally chartered to serve cities and states but quickly became interested in operating at national and international levels. “The capitalization of railroads,” according to Gordon, “gradually weakened rather than strengthened the finances of the towns and cities they had been built to serve” [23]. By consolidating nearby lines and collecting monopoly rates, small-town businessmen could become robber barons within a few years. This meant that lawmakers had to make a choice between forgoing the promises of resources, labor, and capital that came with being online or retaining economic and even legislative autonomy.

Legislators of railroads had to walk a fine line that today’s telecommunications regulators find themselves dealing with today. Large private firms necessary for everyday commerce are dangerous to social welfare but are difficult to remove once their power is sufficiently entrenched. This is the general idea behind American anti-monopoly laws but this sentiment can be traced as far back as 960 A.D. where the Song Dynasty of China, recognizing that powerful merchants were essentially printing money in the form of bank notes, tried to ban the practice before issuing a few licenses in exchange for oversight (Graeber, 2011). Railroad companies, like those first century Chinese merchants, were so deeply engrained in the daily economic functioning that some sort of governmental control was deemed necessary. Instead of seizing or breaking up the railroads, American lawmakers devised one of the most important legal innovations to come out of the Victorian Era: the designation of private firms as “common carriers.”

A common carrier is an entity that, due to its ubiquity and centrality to daily life, is forbidden from certain types of discrimination and price structuring. Trains were defined as common carriers in a piecemeal fashion, often state-by-state and line-by-line, until common carrier statutes were adopted by the federal government after the American Civil War (Gordon, 1996). Some highly specialized routes were still considered private while popular passenger routes were deemed a public good and regulated as such. States in the northeast were generally the first to get these regulations, but they spread out to the south and west in a haphazard fashion (Gordon, 1996). Common carriage allowed smaller towns to petition their state’s railroad commission for a railway stop and gave the state and federal governments the legal authority to enforce the petition. It is important to note that firms deemed common carriers were (and still are) generally granted exceptions to non-discrimination rules if discrimination served overall network health. For example, recent rulings to treat Internet service providers as common carriers carries with it a “reasonable network management exception.”

Internet providers have only very recently come under the jurisdiction of common carrier legislation. I will return to this topic in the conclusion but for now it suffices to say that this development is mostly good but comes with some caveats. For example, while common carriage can enforce fair or predictable behavior in a way that is beneficial to individual consumers, at present communities still cannot demand that private firms upgrade networks, provide certain services, or maintain reasonable subscription fees. Small content or service providers may still find themselves kicked out of a regulatory environment that favors larger actors, something that happened to railroad companies and local radio (Thompson, 2014).

While common carrier legislation certainly represents a large gain in democratic governance over privately owned property, the railroad industry also has historical lessons in government’s willingness to assist private capital in attaining monopoly status in the first place. Eminent domain (also called compulsory purchase, resumption, or expropriation depending on the country) is the ability of governments to seize private property for what it deems to be public use, has played a very large role in the expansion of railroads and telecommunications systems. For railroads it ensured uninterrupted land holdings across an entire continent and established legal precedent that land seized through eminent domain could be immediately transferred to a private entity (Gordon, 1996). Similarly, telecommunications companies not only maintain network “backbones” that traverse thousands of miles and burrow beneath thousands of miles of roads in cities and towns, they also continue to directly benefit from the interpretation of eminent domain that says the public good can be served through private holding (Lee, 2011).

Railroads and Silicon Valley companies — not just telecommunications companies — share a number of highly lucrative business strategies as well. They rely on an uncannily similar mix of loss-leader investments and commoditized attention of captive audiences. Many railroads, both regional and local, built lines out into undeveloped land on the outskirts of towns that they had purchased. The company would then advertise new and modern homes with transit access on their other lines. Once the homes were built, the railway company would rent their billboards to other companies (Jackson, 1985). Continental railroads would run specials where the price of a one-way train ticket could go towards the purchase price of land out west (Gordon, 1996).

Frank Pasquale, in his the Black box society noted that telegraph, railroad, cable, and search companies all established dominance by inserting themselves at “essential junctions of an emerging economic order” [24]. Railroad companies made themselves obligatory points of passage for everyday life. Just like a social media company, they eventually shifted from service provider into the role of buyer and seller of targeted advertising. It is in these sorts of situations that it becomes absolutely clear that being “online” is not an individual choice to be connected to a technological system. It is much more accurate to describe it as participation in a society that is shot through with powerful firms and organizations that broker communication and commerce.

Networks of lines are not only political and legal agents. They are cultural, semiotic, and linguistic actors as well. Today we can go online, post something online, see someone online, and shop online. Online and off-line tend to describe social interactions more than they do technical statuses. Even when one is not taking a photo to post on a social media platform, the availability of such platforms changes how we see the world. One is encouraged to think of moments in their life as possible data to be put online. Nathan Jurgenson (2011) calls this “documentary vision” and likens it to the “‘camera eye’ photographers develop when ... they begin to see the world as always a potential photo even when not holding the camera at all.”

Jurgenson goes on to state, “We come to see what we do as always a potential document, imploding the present with the past, and ultimately making us nostalgic for the here and now.” The “nostalgia for the here and now” instigated by social media was also reported by train passengers who bemoaned the quickness with which the scenery around them flew by. Whereas the British aristocrat was used to the slow and plodding course taken by horse-drawn stagecoaches and British peasants walked and hitched rides on caravans, the velocity of a train rendered the view outside almost illegible. “Steam power,” according to Schivelbusch, “appeared ... as artificial energy in opposition to natural forces.” [25]

John Ruskin remarked that while the view from a train increases the number of things one might see on a given journey there was an almost mathematically inverse relationship to the quality of the experience (Schivelbusch, 1986). Such a quantity over quality critique is almost identical to the concerns raised by contemporary culture critic Nicholas Carr in his 2008 article in the Atlantic, “Is Google making us stupid?” Carr insists that prior to the Internet doing research felt like being “a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” He goes on to cite the personal experiences of his friends (“mostly literary types”) who express difficulty in keeping focus the way they used to. Carr insists that the velocity of information not only changes perception but cognition as well. He cites developmental psychologist Maryanne Wolf’s worry that Web-based content “puts ‘efficiency’ and ‘immediacy’ above all else” (Carr, 2008).

The upshot of illegible (and thus boring) views from trains led to a boom in train station book sales. The popularity of reading on trains, plus the relatively late invention of large train cars that were accessible between one-another during travel, meant that much of train travel was characterized as an isolating experience in which the traveler rarely interacts with the scenery or fellow passengers (Schivelbusch, 1986). Similarly, the widespread adoption of personal computers and smartphones is described by prominent author and researcher Sherry Turkle as encouraging anti-social behavior that rewards “communication over conversation” or as the title of her book calls it, being “alone, together” (Turkle, 2012, 2011).

How online/offline states — or even their mere availability — affect one’s mood or behavior shows that control over online and hence offline states is not necessarily just about having or refusing access to a network. Exercising one’s agency can mean gaining control over the digital networks that intersect one’s life, but it can also mean feeling in control over each other’s documentary vision. Research on social (Tokunaga, 2011) and liquid (Lyon, 2006; Bauman and Lyon, 2013) surveillance has shown that even those individuals who do not intend to appear online can find themselves or their data available to the network without their consent. And as Tufekci (2014) and Pasquale (2015) have shown, we we have little way of knowing to what degree our experiences and decisions are the result of networked data acquisition and organization.

The isolation and individuation in both networks at their respective times of early adoption also contributed to exaggerated fears of predation by murders, rapists, and thieves (Schivelbusch, 1986; Fisk, 2011; boyd, 2014). Two high-profile suspected murders inside private train cars led to increased fear that trains were sites of particular vulnerability. Similarly the social action online, particularly when it comes to youth, is often viewed in mass media as shot through with predation and illicit activity (Fisk, 2011; boyd, 2014).

Both technologies oddly enough, have also been cast as sites of misandry. Men reported avoiding sharing private cars with women they did not know, not because of decorum, but out of fear of unfounded accusations ranging from improper conversation topics to sexual assault (Schivelbusch, 1986). Whereas the train was a setting for such accusations, the Internet is a stage upon similar fears can not only be realized, but collected, curated, indexed and shared. The burgeoning “Men’s rights movement” has found a home in, and is mainly composed of “a loose but loud collection of Internet blogs sites, [and] policy-oriented organizations,” frequented by “a legion of middle-class white men who feel badly done by individual women or by policies they believe have cheated them.” [26]

Given this history of trains as agents of disorientation, danger, disruption, and removal from the topography of travel, it is remarkable that the American passenger rail service Amtrak announced in late 2014 a pilot writers’ residency program premised on the fact that trains: “don’t just connect small towns to big cities, they connect families, friends and loved ones. They offer a chance to connect with other travelers, [and] experience the American countryside” [27]. This total reversal of what a train offers its passengers strongly suggests that the pronouncements made by critics like Carr and Turkle are a kind of cultural atavism: a retelling of Ruskin’s handwringing about illegible views and parcel-like passengers. Their claims to authenticity or states of nature miss a larger historical perspective that suggests such concerns are cyclical and arise out of legitimate fears over one’s agency in a rapidly changing world. Such approaches miss a forest of social, economic, and political power dynamics for the trees of a romanticized technological past.



Fighting to stay offline

Even with strong regulatory frameworks described earlier, local governments were not equally empowered to regulate their railroads. Big cities had the clout to negotiate with railroad companies and the amenities to make the best use of people and capital that came off trains. Smaller towns however, had much less to negotiate with and were in greater danger of having people and capital leave town on the train, rather than see it come in (Jackson, 1985; Gordon, 1996; Hall, 2002).

Gordon notes that with the exception of Southern towns and a handful of rural areas in the North, “very few towns blocked the expansion of railroads within their boundaries” [28]. Southern states’ rights advocates, recognizing the power of railroads to dictate economic terms, passed laws that banned southern railroads from connecting rail to northern railroads and outlawed lines that were owned by out-of-state corporations. It was effective at reinforcing regional antagonism (or solidarity, depending on your point of view) as “no line connected railways between the Ohio river and Washington D.C. virtually the same line that the Civil War was fought along” [29]. After the American Civil War northern rail companies were the only ones granted land to expand east of the Mississippi.

What did happen when cities handed railroad barons a set of terms? Typically, these towns demanded that trains stop at their town and force passengers off for a period of time so that they might shop and dine at local establishments (Gordon, 1996). Some cities asked for a bit more. Lowell, Massachusetts, a relatively small city with a large manufacturing base, was successful in negotiating strong right-of-way laws that not only gave the city a definitive say in where and how lines were built, but also stipulated stiff penalties and fines for the railroad if trains caused any property damage. Lowell’s local mills were also able to petition the railroad companies to run tracks right up to their door for loading and unloading. These “spur and stops” as they were called, reduced road traffic and were an enormous boon to a thriving industrial economy that lasted for nearly a century (Gordon, 1996; Hall, 2002).

Many more people aimed to stop railroad construction all together. American Indians waged a long, bloody, and moderately successful war against the railroads as they encroached further west (Gordon, 1996; Moody, 2002; Bailey, 2007). Many of the American-born laborers were veterans of the Civil War but the attacks were so frequent that the regular army was called in to stand guard as construction went on. Eight different tribes conducted constant raids on construction workers, slowing down construction and increasing the cost considerably (Bailey, 2007). It is estimated that several hundred workers were killed in raids and the railroad companies suffered huge increases in expenditures due to sabotage, stealing, and vandalism (Bailey, 2007). Despite massive initial government subsidies the companies involved in the First Transcontinental Railroad needed to continually ask for more loans and bonds in order to complete the project. Much of this had to do with corruption, changes in tax codes, and unexpected labor shortages caused by gold rushes in California (Gordon, 1996; Moody, 2002) but the continuous fighting with Native Americans cannot be overlooked.

The British aristocracy also fought the expansion of railroads. They enjoyed the temperate weather and magnificent views of isolated seaside towns but railroads quickly transformed these places into prime middle-class tourist destinations and eventually sites of suburban development (Schivelbusch, 1986, 1978). Aristocrats quickly switched tactics however, and instead sought to take advantage of this change in geography by dividing up their sprawling estates into property that could be leased. The landed aristocracy sought to establish themselves as leaders of these growing urban centers but, after land values collapsed in the lead up to World War I, they sold off most of their land (Cannadine, 1980).

Today it might seem odd that aristocrats would give up their seclusion, given that today even moderately well off people are quick to adopt a “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) attitude. Why would the most powerful people in a nation consent to such a radically new mode of income and way of life? Part of the answer lies in the widespread fear among the elite that organized labor and radical sects of the population were primed for revolt, both in England and in the United States (Salvatore, 1980; Hall, 2002).

Many landowners feared that the overcrowded slums of London would erupt in the kind of labor activism that was sweeping the United States in 1877. Starting in Martinsburg, West Virginia, strikes spread quickly to industrial centers like Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and more rural outposts like Terre Haute, Indiana (Salvatore, 1980). English towns like Birmingham and fishing villages like Brighton acted like pressure-release valves, offering marginally better living conditions and entertainment to working class and middle class Londoners. It also completed a centuries-long process that Marx described as the proletarianization of the masses: the freeing of bodies from land so that their labor could be easily bought and sold in urban factories. The railroads made it possible to cheaply distribute goods and people to and from centralized production centers.

While inter-city heavy rail was effective at empire building and working class pacification, intra-city mass transit systems helped strengthen robber baron’s hold on the urban workforce and opened up opportunities to turn unprofitable hinterland into lucrative real estate. It was common for real estate developers and streetcar owners to work together to advertise new housing on specific lines, with the promise of future expansion of the line into the new neighborhoods. This was so lucrative that many lines were run at a loss, with the expectation that the real estate development eventually would pay off (Jackson, 1985; Fishman, 1982; Hall, 2002).

Towards the end of the twentieth century, streetcar companies followed their heavy rail counterparts and began to consolidate into fewer, but more powerful companies. Philadelphia, for example, saw its 66 separate companies all come under the ownership of a single company (Jackson, 1985). In Chicago, Charles Tyson Yerkes — through deft financial haggling, blackmail, and bribery of city and state officials — owned all but one line in the city. In less than a decade he oversaw the construction of the Chicago loop, the replacement of horse-drawn cars with electric ones, and the laying of 500 miles of track.

In 1897 Yerkes sought to extend his contract with the city for another 50 years, with promises of raising fares and reducing the quality of service. The city and state legislatures had been sufficiently bribed and were ready to approve the contract when, as historian Kenneth T. Jackson put it,

“a mob carrying guns and ropes surrounded City Hall and so menacingly threatened their representatives with bodily injury that the extension failed. Disappointed but undaunted, Yerkes promptly sold his Chicago holdings and moved to England, where he was in control of the London Underground at the time of his death in 1905.” [30]

The Chicago transit system meanwhile was bought up by a privately owned firm in 1924 which made moderate changes to the system until it was merged into the publicly owned “Chicago Transit Authority” in 1947 (, n.d.).

I promised that this essay would end with prescriptive recommendations for Internet activism built upon historical experience surrounding railway activism and, given many of these examples, it would be reasonable to expect some sort of appeal to armed rebellion against telecom companies. While continued direct action-style activism that increases the cost of unwanted activities might be successful in theory, a protracted war on the scale of the transcontinental railroad would not be effective, mainly because much of the undesirable work of telecom companies can be done in highly secured spaces that cannot be infiltrated without considerable resources. Instead I advocate for continuing the work in the United States of classifying internet service providers as “common carriers” subject to further public oversight. I also advocate for activism at the local level, with the aim of establishing publicly owned networks and seeking new regional authority to scrutinize monopoly agreements and divest private companies of their capital.

A prerequisite to this course of action is recognizing that online is a social relationship, and not an individual status. As the examples above have shown, efforts to remain off railway lines were few and far between, but were often an effort to retain autonomy (as seen with the American south and west) and were more of a rejection of a political or economic system rather than a purely technical one. Towns and villages recognized that being off the line, when surrounded by online cities, was not the same as retaining a pre-railroad existence. Instead, groups fought for, and in many cases won, control over the contours and contexts of connection.

A very similar fight to the one that turned railroads into common carriers is going on today. Activists and some government authorities petitioned the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the bureaucracy in charge of communications regulations, to classify Internet service providers as common carriers. That reclassification occurred in February of 2015, which barred private companies that own much of the network infrastructure from creating “tiered” service levels and regulating the content that passes through their hardware. U.S. President Barack Obama even released a statement asking that the FCC ban ISPs from blocking, throttling, or prioritizing specific content over others (Obama, 2014).

This is an excellent first step but what has been left out of many high-profile conversations about democratic governance are the kinds of city-level negotiations that might bring about the digital equivalent of a “spur and stop.” That is, there must be renewed effort in re-negotiating the contracts that cities make with private companies when asked for monopoly access to the public right-of-way. Cities must demand more public services in exchange for the captive markets they hold. Local governments may be even better served by letting these kinds of contracts lapse and instead join the hundreds of communities that have established publicly-owned municipal Internet companies that often provide better services for a fraction of the price. Such ventures could even bring revenues to cash-starved municipal coffers (Alperovitz, 2013).

Local governments may also be well served by taking up the recommendation of Kate Crawford (2014) who advocates for a return of “deodand” — a medieval legal concept that gave governments the ability to seize property that was directly responsible for a death. English lawmakers briefly reinstated this law in the 1830s to regulate railroads but was deemed too punitive. Such a legal concept, however, could be reworked to make it possible to turn more private property over to public holding.

Absent this kind of reformist activism, collectives of individuals may be best served by establishing the kinds of temporary autonomous zones (TAZ) described by Hakim Bey. Bey encourages his reader to reconsider the lost history of pirates and their island communities that, while not long lasting, were bastions of freedom that were multicultural in nature and horizontal in their organization. “The TAZ,” writes Bey, “is like an uprising which does not engage directly with the State, a guerilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen, before the State can crush it.” [31]

Such temporary enclaves have become easy to make thanks to the efforts of organizations and individuals to make encryption and ad hoc networking relatively user-friendly. If governments refuse to negotiate in good faith with corporations, on behalf of the people they claim to represent, the TAZ offers an opportunity to extract services like public access TV via extra-legal means. For example, several Wi-Fi routers running the open source software OpenWRT could create a theoretically infinitely extendable “mesh” network and run applications that are only available on the network. This, along with a growing market of applications for smartphones that allow for messaging through the short-range “Bluetooth” wireless protocol, make for a promising future.

Finally, there is the matter of taking hardware from elites by force and releasing it to the public. Remote attacks on networks, either by swamping servers with requests to connect or injecting malicious code, can achieve temporary or even permanent damage to hardware. It may also provide a means of taking control of servers for a time, but control over entire physical buildings is necessary if new and sustained networks are to be achieved. This means dispossessing companies of their capital either through legal battles or direct action. While success was far from assured, it should be noted that the uprising against Yerkes in Chicago stands as one of the quickest and most effective methods of halting unjust control over a network. It stood up to multiple layers of government, although it did have the unintended effect of subjecting a different city’s people to the tyrannical control of Yerkes. This underscores the need for coordination across broad swaths of the population, even when acting locally. End of article


About the author

David A. Banks is a Ph.D. student in science and technology studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. He is also co-editor of Cyborgology (
E-mail: david [dot] adam [dot] banks [at] gmail [dot] com



The author would like to thank Britney Summit-Gil for her early and consistent review of this work and unending moral support. Thanks also go to Nathan Jurgenson with whom early discussions of this topic lead to study in this area; Lindsay Poirier, Justin Quinn for literature suggestions; Vint Cerf, and David P. Reed for their input in their respective fields of expertise; the special issue editors for their careful work; and, anonymous reviewers for making my argument as strong as possible.



1. As depicted in Jackson, 1985; Schivelbusch, 1986; Hall, 2002; Gordon, 1996; W. Bailey, 2007.

2. Quoted in Schivelbusch, 1986, pp. 17–18.

3. Schivelbusch, 1986, p. 22.

4. Schivelbusch, 1986, p. 23.

5. Mumford, 1934, p. 216.

6. C. Markham, 1926, p. 15.

7. Gordon, 1996, p. 300.

8. C. Markham, 1926, p. 12.

9. Schivelbusch, 1986, p. 72.

10. Gordon, 1996, p. 301.

11. Schivelbusch, 1986, p. 29.

12. Quote from personal correspondence over e-mail, used with author’s permission. Cerf, 2014.

13. Cohen, 1983, p. ix.

14. Engineering Research Associates, 1983, p. 7.

15. J. Abbate, 1999, p. 24.

16. Quote from personal correspondence over e-mail, used with author’s permission. D. Reed, 2014.

17. Mumford, 1934, p. 270.

18. Mumford, 1934, p. 275.

19. Negroponte, 1995, p. 6.

20. Quoted in Schivelbusch, 1986, p. 34.

21. Hughes, 2012, p. 47.

22. Ibid.

23. Gordon, 1996, p. 54.

24. Pasquale, 2015, p. 90.

25. Schivelbusch, 1986, p. 10.

26. Quote from Coston and Kimmel, 2013, p. 375; also see Kimmel, 2013.

27. Quote from the Amtrak Blog published 24 September 2014; accessed 15 December 2014.

28. Gordon, 1996, p. 64.

29. Gordon, 1996, p. 5.

30. K. Jackson, 1985, pp. 110–111.

31. H. Bey, 1991, p. 40.



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Editorial history

Received 2 October 2015; accepted 22 October 2015.

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Lines of power: Availability to networks as a social phenomenon
by David A. Banks.
First Monday, Volume 20, Number 11 - 2 November 2015

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