Social Worlds of the Information Society: Lessons from the Calumet Region

Social Worlds of the Information Society: Lessons from the Calumet Region

2003-08-29

U.S. Steel chiefs and AOL-Time Warner executives span one hundred years of decimation wrapped in rhetoric. John Monberg annotates their enduring logics of expansion.

Rhetoric heralding the information society promises a shiny new world. This rhetoric draws on cultural values powerful in America: technology as a means to social progress, an emphasis on individualism, and a belief in the dynamism of free markets. This rhetoric is powerful because the information society is both new and abstract. But what kind of social world and workplace are information technologies likely to actually create when they are shaped by unfettered corporate imperatives? Similar social promises were made at the beginning of the twentieth century when U.S. Steel planned the creation of Gary, Indiana, in the heart of the Calumet Region, on the shore of Lake Michigan, southeast of Chicago: advanced technologies would transform a frontier into a global village, create a wealthy workforce, a clean environment, and exciting social spaces.

What social worlds emerged from U.S. Steel’s plans over the course of the twentieth century? Richard Dorson, a leading oral historian, conducted an exhaustive analysis of the Calumet Region. He summarized his findings in describing the self-produced myth of the Calumet Region as “a cultural desert peopled by blue-collar workers living in the midst of polluted skies, garbage dumps and violent ghettos.” (Dorson 235) This self-produced myth is perhaps the most succinctly stated vision of the most dystopian kind of social world one could imagine. It is also, at the same time, profoundly true and profoundly false. Cultural desert, blue-collar workers, polluted skies: each of the claims is supported and denied by massive physical, social, and environmental evidence of monumental scale. The Calumet Region offers scenes of a uniquely beautiful duneland environment and desolated urban waste sites, one of the most economically productive facilities in the world and bitter impoverishment. Why did the Calumet Region evolve the way it did over the course of the twentieth century? Early decisions diminished a distinctive ecology, permanently scarred the urban form of the area, and resulted in racial divisions that continue to cause great suffering even today. All of these consequences of power are manifestly visible in the Calumet Region, even as they remain invisible in many analyses of the information age. Corporate imperatives drove the brutal simplification of a complex ecological system and prevented the social solidarities that could challenge corporate power through unionization and community action.

The logics driving the America Online-Time Warner merger are eerily similar to the forces shaping the Calumet Region’s history. Again, a technologically advanced, capital-intensive corporation with a dominant position in its industry restructures sets of social relations through a calculating rationality. America Online-Time Warner is producing audiences instead of steel, measuring and grading the demographic, psychological, and web-browsing activities of individuals as raw materials in the production process, but the logic it employs is the same logic that U.S. Steel employed one hundred years ago. The lessons of the Calumet Region experience debunk many of the myths surrounding the information age.

Changes in media technology change patterns of social interaction, and changing patterns of social interaction have political consequences. Given the rapid advancement of communication technology and the wide range of novel uses to which this technology has been put, calls to assess the democratic potential of new communication technologies have become increasingly common. The Calumet Region offers lessons from one hundred years of social planning and experimentation that can be used to critique today’s promise of a more democratic information society. Why choose the Calumet Region as an object of comparison? It is the geographic location where the largest industrial concentration in the United States confronted both a natural environment with more species per acre than any area in the United States, and a social environment with unprecedented racial and ethnic diversity.

Like computer-communication technologies of the present era, steel was a technology that had pervasive consequences for the America of its time. Steel changed the way people lived, worked, traveled, and fought wars (Misa, A Nation of Steel, passim). Cheap steel gave rise to railroads, skyscrapers, automobiles, battleships, armored tanks and most of the other items, technologies, and institutions we associate with modern, industrialized societies. The Calumet Region was at the heart of the transformation of American society, and was itself a product of it. The Calumet Region was home to the largest concentration of industrial production in the United States, and perhaps the world. Writers sponsored by the Works Projects Administration provided an overview of the Region in 1939:

Today, with a population of 260,000, the Calumet has become, in only three decades, one of the greatest industrial centers of the world. Nowhere else in America is there such a concentration of diversified industrial operations. Dominated by the heavy industries - the manufacture of steel, railroad equipment, and chemicals, and the refining of oil - the region possesses 221 various companies which manufacture 1,217 different products. Represented in this group are several plants - a steel works, a rail mill, a cement plant, and a generating unit - which top the list of their category as the world’s largest. One of the five large oil refineries is the largest departmentalized refinery in the world (Calumet Region 3).

The region underwent its most significant expansion when United States Steel calculated that it would be the optimal location for its largest steel making facilities. United States Steel was a more significant economic and political force for its time than any corporation today, including Microsoft, IBM, or Oracle.

Even discounting the hyperbole inherent in the writing style of the time, Herbert Casson’s dramatization painted a striking image of the unique power of United States Steel:

The biggest business fact in the world is the United States Steel Corporation. It has more stockholders than the population of Nevada; more employees than there are voters in Maine; more profits, in a good year than the revenue of the city of New York. Above all ordinary corporations it towers like the Great Pyramid of Cheops above the sand mounds of the desert (Casson 1).

Like today’s information technologies, steel was the most advanced expression of science and technology in its era. U.S. Steel’s Gary facility was the first example of the deliberate application of the principles of scientific location for industry. There were no retraced steps, extra movements, or reheatings of intermediate products. The plant was designed for efficient flow of materials, was the first designed so as to take advantage of the benefits of electrification (Greer 60), and became a model for the most advanced production facilities of Germany and the Soviet Union.

The glossiest promises of information society futurists like Bill Gates and Nicholas Negroponte merely echo the words of Will Moore, a U.S. Steel booster:

Every advance known to science and industry will have its mark on these steel mills, destined to be soon the most extensive in the world in the manufacture of steel and the making of everything in which steel is the prime factor. I hereby submit a statement of facts that will surprise you. It is about the wonderful-amazing conditions, present and prospective, at Gary, Ind. - a business enterprise unequaled in combined size, speed and permanency in the world’s history (Moore 7).

Many analysts argue that the interconnections of the information age will transform the world into a global village. Unlike the screen-deep interconnections of Webcams and Web pages today, the large number of immigrants who came to the Calumet Region in search of employment created a global village of physically close neighborhoods. They came primarily from eastern and southern Europe - Poles, Czechs, Russians, Lithuanians, Hungarians, Croatians, Serbians, Slovaks, Turks, Greeks, and Italians. Immigrants from fifty-two separate nationalities made their home in Gary by 1920, and the proportion of foreign stock (foreign-born, or native with at least one immigrant parent) reached 60.5 percent of the city’s entire population (Mohl and Betten 5).

The business pages were, at millennium’s end, abuzz with stories of millionaires made rich by Internet initial public offerings. Similarly, in the turn of the century steel industry, “Every young officer who served under General Carnegie was either a millionaire or a physical wreck in a few years. No system has ever made so many men so wealthy in so short a time” (Casson 24). The social, political, and economic dominance of the Calumet Region in general and Gary in particular were expressed by Hammond, Indiana mayor Tom Knotts in 1910, who called Gary the “prophet”of the national and even global future (Lane 34). Contemporaries dubbed Gary the “Magic City.” Corporate planners for U.S. Steel shaped the urban form of Gary, Indiana according to the dictates of short-term profit as they implemented a strictly functional form of rationality. Because the social system was shaped to meet the requirements of the corporation, public participation in planning was almost nonexistent and the social spaces that would have allowed for deliberation and collective action were purposefully eliminated from the urban form. Gary’s largely immigrant population was already splintered along the lines of ethnicity, race, and class. U.S. Steel’s urban planning efforts exacerbated these divisions and lead directly to the social and environmental problems that continue to plague the Region today. A divided population, without access to direct or mediated communication, was unable to effectively resist US Steel’s imperatives.

America Online, Time Warner, and the Information Society

The AOL-Time Warner merger resulted in a $147 billion media conglomerate controlling the pipelines and information flows that connect most of the homes of the information society. If U.S. Steel’s efforts to maximize corporate profits shaped the Calumet Region during the twentieth century, AOL-Time Warner’s efforts to gain an advantage from advanced interactive communication technologies will likely shape the social structure of the information age during the twenty-first century. What will be the process by which publics are constituted through the efforts of Time Warner? The largest and most technologically advanced of these efforts were the Full Service Network, an interactive cable television system, and Pathfinder, Time Warner’s umbrella site on the World Wide Web.

Such interactive efforts are worthy of attention. The world’s leading media and entertainment company, Time Warner has interests in cable television, movies, recorded music, book publishing, magazines, and theme parks. The company has revenues of more than $20 billion a year, including $4 billion of international revenue. Time Warner is also viewed within the media industry as a technological pioneer. It created the first national cable channel, Home Box Office, only made possible by an innovative use of satellite distribution facilities. Financial clout, breadth of content, and technical initiative are hallmarks of the company, allowing it to form a template of media products and services that have been widely adopted by the rest of the industry. Time Warner has aggressively deployed the most sophisticated technology in the area of interactive media. Its interactive initiatives include the Full Service Network, an advanced cable television network in Orlando, Florida and Pathfinder, one of the most extensive and prominent sites on the World Wide Web. These initiatives constitute an ongoing experimental effort to determine whether or not interactive media will be commercially viable on a large scale.

Time Warner’s interactive efforts can be understood as a technical capability. The Full Service Network was the world’s first digital, interactive television network, and provided customers in Orlando, Florida on-demand access to a variety of entertainment and informational services. It was also, at the time, the most technically sophisticated commercial information service ever delivered to the consumer, self-described as the “Cadillac” of interactive-television tests. From the time of the system’s inception in 1992, over $700 million dollars were required in order to make it operational on December 14, 1994.

The Full Service Network required advances in each of many sophisticated technical components as well as their coordination into a functioning system. Each technical component is produced by a different company or companies, develops at a different rate, and is subject to different regulatory barriers and business opportunities. Time Warner’s efforts are frequently symbolized in terms of heralding in a utopian future. The theme of “digital convergence” among software, hardware, communication, and entertainment industries is a staple of the business press and technological futurists. The perception created is that this field is a high risk/high reward activity. The promise of technology in shaping a new future is often framed in religious terms, as when the Full Service Network was described in Time magazine, “This is the holy grail of interactive television: true video on demand” (Elmer-Dewitt 125).

In these narratives, the future is not a static vision on the horizon; it is hurtling toward us at an ever-increasing rate. Gerald Levin described the relationship between technological momentum and corporate initiatives vividly:

Sooner or later, every significant player in the information and entertainment industry is going to have to understand the implications of broadband digital interactivity. Except as every competitor in the cable industry already knows, sooner isn’t only better, it’s often everything. The FSN will drive home this lesson with unforgiving velocity. The introduction of the FSN is an irreversible step across the threshold of change (Elmer-Dewitt 126).

The Full Service Network was really an attempt to fulfill the promise that technological advances hold out. Even if the purpose of the Full Service Network is vague, the reasoning seems to be that technological change is so fast and so powerful that inevitably some way will be found to make use of emerging new technologies. Anything more than a cursory perusal of Gerald Levin’s speeches and position statements makes clear that he views technological advance, in and of itself, as a world-historical force. For example, in a shrilly argued piece, he stresses the watershed nature of interactive technology, “The same kind of minds that denounced Galileo as a heretic, ridiculed Edison’s notion of an electric-powered light and dismissed the Wright brothers’ ideas as a crackpot scheme have turned their sights on the new medium of interactivity” (Shapiro, B1). The idiom of today’s business journal is the language of early twentieth century industrial boosterism.

The stridency of Levin’s language is as much a gauge of his beliefs as it is a gauge of the skepticism he must work to overcome. His statements reiterate the theme of technology in the service of corporate destiny. And in settling the frontier of the future, Levin frequently calls on metaphors with quasi-religious overtones. Connie Bruck observed that “Levin has long maintained that he has been compelled by something far less mundane, almost mystical: a sense of obligation to divine and bring to fruition the `manifest destiny’ of Time Inc. And now Time Warner” (Bruck 55). In such rhetorical strategies, the future is at once a time, a place, a corporate prize, and an inevitable outcome of technological development. There is no place in this rhetoric for arguments about technological choice. There is no room for public debate in narratives of linear technical progress. Access to communication channels, and the uses to which these technologies are put, are taken out of history, struggle, and politics. Ironically, these most advanced, most widespread channels of interactive capability may allow little space for a truly public social dialogue.

Like the Calumet Region, information technology-based publics all lay at a key juncture, an identifiable point at which economic, cultural, and social forces intertwine. These technologies blur fixed distinctions between originator/message/audience and product/advertisement/community as complex chains created for a given purpose by one set of groups are adopted and modified over time by other groups. Planned urban streets no longer separate social classes; here relevant social categories may be as explicit as the data fields coded into marketing databases or as implicit as the global audience for a popular World Wide Web site. This analysis is sympathetic to and complements media studies efforts that trace the multiple, ongoing ways that the cultural technologies of media situate audiences.

The forms of life congruent with the adoption of the printing press, highways, and similar technological orders were unforeseen and certainly not chosen by any of the actors involved in some sort of rational decision-making process. As James C. Carey’s analysis has demonstrated, with the adoption of the telegraph formerly bounded communities became much more strongly affected by distant economic, political, and cultural centers. These connections dramatically revised existing notions of journalistic style, conceptions of objectivity, common sense, and perceptions of time and space. The economic model of rational actors pursuing their individual ends through an efficient market is a poor model for the intelligent social shaping of advanced media technologies. The most profound and consequential impacts are often felt diffusely and only over the long term; they are not easily be measured in economic terms, and they may be outside the control of any particular actor.

Or so shows the experience of the Calumet Region. The promise of steel was also held at one time to promise the creation of the kind of social worlds we most would want to inhabit. Capturing this trace of an alternative future has been the aim of photojournalist Jose Camilo Vergara. He spent several decades in Detroit, the Bronx, Chicago, and Gary, coming to understand the places left behind when the economic and industrial forces that promise so much move on. Vergara rejects the demands that these places are worthless and should be bulldozed, pleading that

There is something inspiring about ruins. As witnesses of the urban condition, they urge us to ask: Is there no choice but to stand by and watch the destruction of our cities? Stripped down to their essences, leftover buildings and discarded spaces form cityscapes of great power. While they last, we have our ruins and the immense longings they instill in us. Even at risk of bodily harm, we need to hear the elemental chant that comes from our skeletal neighborhoods. The `City of the Broad Shoulders,’ and `Steel City,’ sing about the shortness of life, the awesome beauty of our creations, and our abject failure to create a just society. With their chant they beckon us to come home and perhaps try again (Vergara 197).

My purpose has been to make metaphoric use of the ruins. They yet have work to do. If we listen to their chant we may build an information society that does not simply repeat the failures of the steel society. What framework is most useful for identifying the critical new aspects of these electronic social spaces? How does power function, as social differences are inscribed into systems, mobilized, and fed back into the circuits used to shape the social worlds of those who are enmeshed within such systems? At the moment, this problem area remains underdeveloped. If we are going to live in an “information society,” broad and deep perspectives ought to be brought to bear on specific projects, in order to illuminate and reimagine policy alternatives, and the implications these policies have for just what kind of society the “information society” might be.

Works Cited

Bruck, Connie. “Jerry’s Deal,” The New Yorker, February 19, 1996: 55-69.

The Calumet Region Historical Guide. Compiled by the workers of the Writer’s Program of the Works Projects Administration, Indianapolis: Garman Printing CC, 1939.

Carey, James W. Communication as Culture. London: Routledge, 1989.

Casson, Herbert N. The Romance of Steel, The Story of a Thousand Millionaires. New York: A. S. Barnes and Company, 1907.

Dorson, Richard M. Land of the Millrats. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Elmer-Dewitt, Phillip. “Ready for Primetime?” Time, December 26, Volume 144, No. 26, 1994: 125-126.

Greer, Edward. Big Steel: Black Politics and Corporate Power in Gary, Indiana. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1979.

Lane, James B. “City of the Century”: A History of Gary, Indiana. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978.

Misa, Thomas J. A Nation of Steel: The Making of Modern America, 1865-1925. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Mohl, Raymond A. and Neil Betten. Steel City Urban and Ethnic Patterns in Gary, Indiana, 1906-1950. New York: Holnes and Meier.

Moore, Powell A. The Calumet Region: Indiana’s Last Frontier. Reprinted with an afterword by Lance Trusty 1977. Indiana Historical Bureau, 1991.

Moore, Will H. `If I Had Known’ about Gary in 1909. Chicago: Barnard & Miller Print, 1911.

Shapiro, Eben. “Time Warner’s Orlando Test to Start - Finally,” Wall Street Journal, December 7, 1994, B1.

Vergara, Camilo Jose. The New American Ghetto. Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1995.