A Telephone for the World: Iridium, Motorola, and the Making of a Global Age.
The fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989, heralded the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the end of the Cold War. Coincidentally, that same day Motorola chairman Robert Galvin authorized a technological project that embodied the promise of a new geopolitical order, which would be characterized by the transnational flow of people, information, and capital. This new venture, known as Iridium, would supply telephone service to the entire planet using a private network of satellites. Although ultimately a commercial failure, Martin Collins seizes upon Iridium's development to consider how high-tech firms shaped globalization efforts at the end of the 20th century.
Specifically, Collins casts Iridium as both a beneficiary of American neoliberalism and also a contributor to its ascendance. The growing faith of U.S. policymakers in the free market's capacity to promote economic and social progress left corporations well-positioned to pursue ambitious international projects. Yet Motorola's managers, engineers, and marketers still struggled to reconcile conflicting understandings of the global as they labored to transform the dream of a world-spanning satellite telephone network into a functioning system.
One concrete example of this confusion involves differing assumptions concerning how people might use an Iridium phone. While promising that service would eventually be accessible to the general public, Motorola's leaders initially concentrated their attention on business professionals traveling from an airport to a nearby city. Calls would be made inside a car, without the need for any additional equipment. Iridium engineers, however, assumed customers would be able to attach an external antenna to their vehicle, and they designed their satellites accordingly. Ultimately, management's vision won the day, but only after engineers had increased each satellite's size and power output to generate stronger signals.
In addition to addressing manufacturing issues of this sort, Collins delves into the domestic and international politics of satellite telephony. Given the global scope of their project, Motorola and Iridium (which was subsequently spun off as a separate corporation) needed to secure permission to transmit signals into every country's territory and form partnerships with local telecommunications providers. The physical manifestations of these alliances were gateway stations linking Iridium's satellites to existing phone networks. All gateways were locally run and responsible for recruiting users in their home countries, comprising what WIRED magazine hailed as "The United Nations of Iridium" (140).
Motorola encouraged this Utopian rhetoric, and actively cultivated a unified corporate culture through in-house training programs and public-relations campaigns. Yet when Iridium's network went online in 1998, it became clear that neoliberal optimism could not overcome local partners' unpredictable regulatory regimes or their lack of engineering expertise. Plagued by low sales, ongoing technical issues, and competition from terrestrial cellular service, Iridium filed for bankruptcy in 1999.
Two decades later, with nationalist movements on the rise, it can be challenging to recall the powerful allure of the globalist mindset that made projects like Iridium possible. Collins' book deserves attention as both a well-researched case study of technological system building, as well as a thoughtful reflection on the relationship between ideology and innovation in the post-Cold War world.
Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering & Technology
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|Title Annotation:||GENERAL, COMPARATIVE, HISTORIOGRAPHICAL|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2019|
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