Question: When scholars write about communication technologies, they often focus on successful technologies. Successful technologies, in turn, are usually described as ever-expanding or "diffusing" throughout society until they are widespread. In this context, Fischer's analysis of the decline in rural telephony in Chapter 4 is remarkable and unusual. Please evaluate this argument in chapter 4. You might comment on his evidence for the decline, his analysis, or his explanation of it. Is the explanation convincing? You might compare it to discussions of other technologies we have read. Does this analysis demonstrate a strength or weakness in his method? (Or, Why did he find this decline when other scholars rarely if ever highlight any declines?)
In his book, Fischer described the development of telephone as both technology and business. One thing makes his work unique is his description of the decline of telephone services in rural area during 1930s. In Chapter 4 of the book, the author gave evidence that the percentage of rural area’s adoption of telephone service experienced decreasing in that period of time, which was the Depression of America. But Fischer argued that the Depression was not the reason of usage decline in rural area. Because, for example, farmers still spent many money on automobiles and the tendency was increasing. So, Fischer concluded that the farmers should have the ability to pay for telephone and they just chose not to do so or just didn’t have that service. As for the reasons, Fischer attributed it to two major ones. First, the available substitute technology. As pointed out by Fischer, there were many other communication technologies available for people from rural area, including automobile, telegraph and more. These new technology made telephone not such a must-have equipment in people’s home. Farmers then evaluated several choices and some abandoned telephone. And second, the changing political economy of the industry. The government was no longer forced the service providers to serve rural areas. Consequently, many rural areas didn’t have reliable services, which led the decline of usage.
I personally found both his evidence and explanation not very strong, though the analysis process seemed to be rational. In the book, Fischer used statistical numbers to indicate the decline of telephone services in rural areas. In his description, we also had the information that many rural areas were not served directly by the service providers and some of them were operated through private and small-scale companies. It was not clear if this portion of services were included in the number of not. As stated by the author, the big companies were not willing to invest in rural area, which was even so when there was no pressure from government. But, at the same time, the farmers might find their own way to be connected. The usage of telephone is not easily traceable as the using of automobile. As for Fischer’s explanations, I’m not satisfied with his claim that the Depression was not the reason why some farmers abandoned telephone service. His evidence was the amount of money farmers spent on automobile and other technology was not declining severely as telephone. For me, it is the Depression that forced the farmers to choose between several options. And telephone is different from either automobile or radio. Users only have to pay for automobile and radio once for the equipment and the further usage is totally under the owner’s control. For example, during the Depression, the farmers may still have automobile but didn’t drive it very often. For telephone, it was different. If it was the flat-rate service, users had to pay monthly fee for the service, which might make some gave this service up. The second explanation of telephone usage decline sounds reasonable for me. The decrease of service quality would definitely lead to decline of users.
Overall, I think Fischer’s finding is strength of his study, though flawed. The reason why other researchers didn’t notice or didn’t focus on this phenomenon might be that they often look at the long-range development of certain technology on a broader view. And at the same time, it is very easy for researchers to focus on brighter side of things. The “diffusion” of telephone is ultimately successful, which may obscure the fact that it experienced some decline in certain areas during this increasing tendency.