Interesting Things I Come Across
Edition 044
Read time: 3 min 
Remembering and forgetting 
This week, two stories of history: one about remembering history so we might learn, and one about learning history so we might forget.

Countryside collective action 
In the late 1800s, Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone. It spread quickly across major urban areas where the large capital costs of phone lines could be spread across many consumers. But wiring the empty American expanse was prohibitively expensive, and phone companies confined themselves to urban centres. 

Two years before Bell patented the telephone, an Illinois farmer patented barbed wire, the wild popularity of which made its inventor one of the richest men in the U.S. What the farming heartland lacked in population density, they made up for in fences. Seen another way, fences dividing land actually connected the extreme points of each landholding. It was possible to engineer these connections to carry a passable signal, thus making long-distance connections economically viable. Farmers banded together to create their own phone networks, as described in this article, with great success:

With the aid of their barbed-wire lines--and plenty of newly strung phone line--farmers surged to the forefront of telephone use from the early 1900s to the 1920s. Many of the more than 6,000 small, independent phone companies that operated in 1902 were farmers' mutuals. In 1907 some 18,000 cooperatives in 10 Midwestern states served 1.5 million rural households. By 1912 more farm households than nonfarm households had telephones, and in 1924 Iowa led the nation in telephones per capita. 

A general question worth thinking about: essential services are more expensive to provide in sparsely populated areas, so how should their costs be shared? Here, farmers collectivised and subsidised service costs by volunteering labour and accepting reduced quality of service, because established major companies had no incentive to operate in minor areas. They achieved some level of service, but still wore additional costs for living in the heartland.

The approach that made barbed wire fences successful seems less likely to work with modern communications: barbed wire is more accessible to the layperson than, say, the a fibre broadband network. To me, it's another strong argument for the state to play a leading role in financing infrastructure, though I'm interested in your thoughts.

Redux redux
In Edition 13: Making Censorship Cool, I wrote about the more than two million (yes, really) content censors employed by Chinese government proxies, often working in start-up style offices. In Edition 40: the Human Side of Technology I looked at the Chinese taggers working to train machine learning algorithms, and argued Western tech firms should use more humans. 

In the same vein, the New York Times' 'Learning China’s Forbidden History, So They Can Censor It' is worth reading for its examples of how Chinese censors, "almost all college graduates in their 20s [and] often unaware of, or indifferent to, politics," learn how to adhere to government censorship rules. Here's an excerpt: 

In China, many parents and teachers tell the young that caring about politics leads only to trouble. To overcome that, Mr. Yang and his colleagues developed a sophisticated training system. New hires start with weeklong “theory” training, during which senior employees teach them the sensitive information that they didn’t know before. “My office is next to the big training room,” Mr. Yang said. “I often hear the surprised sounds of ‘Ah, ah, ah.’”

The article describes 100,000 sensitive words and more than three million derivative words that censors must interpret in order to keep the internet clean: a third of the words are politically sensitive, the rest refer to vices like "pornography, prostitution, gambling and knives". (The derivative words are required because internet users find other ways to say the 100,000 sensitive words.) In some cases, symbols are used: for example, photos of empty chairs refer to a Chinese Nobel Laureate unable to attend the Nobel prize ceremony.  

This seems, on its face, ultimately unsustainable: surely the task becomes ever greater as word of the scheme leaks out? The following excerpt suggests cultural factors, and a resolute belief in the primacy of the state, protect the status quo:

When asked whether he had shared with family and friends what he learned at work, such as the Tiananmen crackdown, Mr. Li vehemently said no.

“This information is not for people outside to know,” he said. “Once many people know about it, it could generate rumors.”

But the crackdown was history. It wasn’t a rumor. How would he reconcile that?

“For certain things,” he said, “one just has to obey the rules.”
About Interesting Things I Come Across 
Interesting Things I Come Across is a weekly, self-explanatory newsletter. My goal is to share thoughtful ideas with clever people in no more than 500 words. Replies are encouraged and corrections are welcomed. I don't necessarily endorse the Things I write about, unless explicitly stated.

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