The Computer and the Telegraph: Influence Channels Between Technology and International Relations


J.C.R. Licklider, a pioneer of computer science, once said the computer is also the direct descendant of the telegraph as it enables one… “to transmit information without transporting material.” Separated by centuries of innovation, the computer and telegraph were revolutionary technologies that undeniably had significant effects in the domain of international relations. To better understand those effects, it is important to specify influence channels between technological developments and the conduct of international relations. This post starts with the computer to outline three general spectrums in which technological developments affect military strategy and warfare. Then, it specifically examines how the prospect of cyberattacks disrupts traditional threat assessments, based on the offense-defense paradigm. In the latter half, it highlights the development of the telegraph and its effects on international institutions and globalization. 

Technological change is intimately linked to military strategy. From the Lee Metford rifle, which enabled the British army to fell the Sudanese Dervishes in 1898, to the U.S. nuclear weapons monopoly in World War II, technological change has played an important, sometimes decisive, role in many conflicts. To more coherently conceptualize technology’s impact on warfare, this post sketches out three broad spectrums of influence: quantitative and qualitative improvements, independent and derivative effects, power diffusion and power concentration. Quantitative changes, operationalized as marginal increases in indicators such as force mobility or payload, are more likely to affect the tactical level of warfighting. For instance, one can see how computers enabled efficiency improvements in war simulations by tracing war gaming from sand tables drawn by Roman war generals to strategy board games to mathematical algorithms resembling calculators to digital programs.

On the other hand, qualitative improvements, which fundamentally affect how war is fought, are more likely to influence strategic decisions in military affairs. For instance, computers are essential for the operation of precision weapons, which Cohen argues ushered in the end of the mass army age. The quantitative-tactical/qualitative-strategic relationship is a tendency rather than a strict function. For instance, a quantitative change in reducing the “launch-to-target” timeframe for a nuclear missile launch may the tip the balance of whether a state could credibly threaten a retaliatory second strike, thereby shaping the other state’s strategic decision regarding a nuclear first strike.

A clear-eyed assessment of how technological change affects military strategy also requires an understanding of the spectrum between technology’s independent and derivative effects. Three main theories explain the emergence of military technology: the “corridor-and-doors” theory (military planners just need to walk down the corridor, unlock doors, and pick up chests of tech), the “form follows function” theory (military technology evolves to meet specific military needs), and the “form follows failure” theory (military technology is produced as a response to some failure in existing technology). Technological changes explained better by the second and third theory are positioned on the “derivative” end of the spectrum, and they put more weight on the surrounding material contexts rather than the technological innovation itself.

As for the “corridor-and-doors” theory, the independent effect of technological change is more readily identifiable. One possible test to differentiate between independent and derivative emergence is to consider whether the technology came from the civilian sector or the military realm. Innovation from within the military will be based on existing strategic considerations, whereas innovations from the civilian sector are not constrained by the status quo military context. For example, both the computer and telegraph were civilian technologies, originally designed to reduce human error in solving complex mathematical problems and facilitate long-distance communication, respectively. When applied to the military sphere, their contributions fundamentally altered the existing assumptions of the possible scale of warfare, as evidenced by the telegraph’s influence on the rise of the mass army as the dominant unit of war. In contrast, Germany’s use of motorized armor during World War II could be viewed merely as an epiphenomenon of their blitzkrieg doctrine to avoid a prolonged war and their military needs to overcome French machine guns, trenches, and barbed wire. Once again, the relationship between this civilian-military test and the independent-derivative spectrum is fuzzy not crisp. The development of nuclear weapons by the U.S. military is a notable exception; it has produced a rich body of literature focusing on nuclear weapons themselves as an independent variable.

But far too often, research into the effects of technological change in international domains focuses solely on military applications. There are two ways in which technological change influenced the development of international institutions. First, revolutionary communication technologies like the telegraph create coordination problems, which serve as demand pressure for international institutional development. The telegraph certainly revolutionized interactions between peoples, dropping communication times between Britain and India from six months in the 1830s to the same day in the 1870s. However, electronic telegraphy also presented significant coordination problems, such as one described by Ruggie concerning what happened to messages when they reached a border. Eventually, the European communications complex evolved from a series of bilateral treaties into several multilateral arrangements and, finally, into the International Telegraph Union (ITU). The ITU was the first standing intergovernmental organization, representing the rise of permanent institutions of global governance. This trend holds for other technologies as well; Murphy notes that a new generation of international organizations emerged as a regulatory response to revolutionary communication technologies, citing the ITU, the Radiotelegraph Union in 1906, and the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization in 1964. But the ITU set the precedent for the shape of multilateral arrangements to come: it codified rules of the road regarding the network of telegraph lines connecting Europe (and later the world), it established a permanent secretariat to administer those rules, and it convened periodic conferences to review the rules.
The second pathway of technological influence on international institutions and order is more intangible. While there were concrete effects of communication by telegraph – e.g. diplomats could send and receive messages without long delays– the intangible effects of virtually instantaneous communication may be more significant. Buzan and Lawson argue that the telegraph created a qualitatively different interaction capacity, linked peoples in a more intensely connected global economy, and generated a “19th century discourse” that shrank the world and allowed humanity to view themselves as one global body. Snapchat and Tinder have had a similar impact on modern love, changing the choice capacity of our romantic entanglements and resulting in interactions defined by transience, as noted by the influential thinker Aziz Ansari.

Indeed, technological innovations have significant effects on the military strategy and the development of international institutions. In the military domain, the type of influence, the independence of influence, and the power distributional effects of influence are important dimensions to examine, as demonstrated by military applications of the computer. The revolutionary impact of the telegraph is reflected in two channels – coordination problems as a push factor for international institutional emergence and change in how people conceive of the world and international order – through which technological innovations have altered international relations.