In the public imagination, Silicon Valley embodies the newest of the new—the cutting edge, the forefront of our social networks and our globally interconnected lives. But the pressures exerted on many of today’s communications tech workers mirror those of a much earlier generation of laborers in a very different space: the London workforce that helped launch and shape the massive telecommunications systems operating at the turn of the twentieth century. As the Victorian age ended, affluent Britons came to rely on information exchanged along telegraph and telephone wires for seamless communication: an efficient and impersonal mode of sharing thoughts, demands, and desires. This embrace of seemingly unmediated communication obscured the labor involved in the smooth operation of the network, much as our reliance on social media and app interfaces does today.
Serving a Wired World is a history of information service work embedded in the daily maintenance of liberal Britain and the status quo in the early years of the twentieth century. As Katie Hindmarch-Watson shows, the administrators and engineers who crafted these telecommunications systems created networks according to conventional gender perceptions and social hierarchies, modeling the operation of the networks on the dynamic between master and servant. Despite attempts to render telegraphists and telephone operators invisible, these workers were quite aware of their crucial role in modern life, and they posed creative challenges to their marginalized status—from organizing labor strikes to participating in deviant sexual exchanges. In unexpected ways, these workers turned a flatly neutral telecommunications network into a revolutionary one, challenging the status quo in ways familiar today.