Mobile Declaration of Independence: Our Oppressor

A week ago I laid down the challenge for us to create a Declaration of Independence for mobility. In that post, I pointed out that the bulk of the original 1776 American Declaration of Independence was a series of charges against the King of England indicating how the American colonies were being oppressed.

For us to declare our independence, we must first identify our oppressor.

Clearly, mobility provides freedom from “fixedness.” As we develop our list of charges against our oppressor, they will largely or entirely be the injustice of being tied to a specific location.

But what is forcing us into this fixed state?

Being in the telecom industry, the easy answer is the traditional telephone network. However, I believe that many fixed things and processes that are now being made mobile are tied to a place by non-telephone components – either because the equipment involved is too difficult to move or because of other forms of connectivity that are place-specific.

As much as anything, I think what we’re struggling against is a mindset that is firmly embedded in how products and processes are designed and in how businesses operate.

For fun, I’d like to call this oppressing force “Big Bell Dogma.”

According to Wikipedia, “dogma” is belief or doctrine held by a religion, ideology or any kind of organization to be authoritative and not to be disputed or doubted.

I think this well captures the mindset against which we fight. It is the belief held by product development groups and by those that define processes that “of course it can’t move, it never has.”

“Big Bell” is a reference to the way AT&T built the telephone network over the last century or so. As mentioned above, not all oppression against mobility is related to telephony, but I think the mindset of that old company well reflects the mindets we’re fighting against.

In Nerds 2.0.1, this mindset is well reflected by this quote from Len Kleinrock, one of the key players in the establishment of the ARPAnet, which would become the Internet: “I would say, ‘Please give us good data communications,’ and they would reply, ‘The United States is a copper mine – we have phone lines everywhere so use the telephone network.’ I would counter, ‘But you don’t understand, it takes twenty-five seconds to set up a call, you charge me for a minimum three minutes, and all I want is to send a millisecond of data.’ Their reply was, ‘Go away, children, the revenue stream from data transmission is dwarfed by that of our voice traffic.’ So the children went away and created the Internet!”

Back in 1995 when I co-founded an Internet startup, I encountered this same mentality within the businesses that we were selling to – a sense that communications would never change. Even though the original AT&T had been broken up 11 years earlier, when I asked one of our customers who his local telephone company was, his retort was “AT&T, of course!”

These examples are specific to the Internet, but I believe this “dogma” extends to a bias against mobility as well. The copper and fiber networks that have been built by the telecom industry represent truly “buried” costs that have historically translated into tremendous wealth creation. Obviously, these assets are well suited to continue to serve a purpose in the information economy, but newer technologies provide tremendous advantages for many applications that have traditionally been served by these fixed facilities.

What we fight against is the mindset represented by those who defend the tethering of products and processes to specific places. This mindset is fueled by the investments that have been made that establish power in the companies, departments, and individuals that stand in the way of mobilizing our lives and our businesses. These investments are not always in hard assets, but often are investments of time and experience to establish intellectual and relational assets. We should expect our assault on these “fixed” ways to be defended to the death.

So, at least personally for me, this “Big Bell Dogma” is a fair representation of the oppressor that is holding back the independence promised by Mobility.

Editorial note: Although there is still a company called AT&T, I think my readers recognize that the modern AT&T is not really the “bad guy” I’m referencing here.

The original AT&T was first dismantled in 1984 as the result of a Justice Department anti-trust action. The company that retained the AT&T name continued to self-destruct, first splitting out its innovation arm as Lucent and its computing arm as NCR and later spinning off AT&T wireless.

The company formerly known as Southwestern Bell was one of the “Baby Bells” created in 1984 out of AT&T and has been working hard to recreate much of what the original Ma Bell had been, most dramatically acquiring the remains of AT&T and taking on that moniker in the past few months.

However, this new AT&T is a very different company that has benefited as much from the fall of the old Ma Bell as anyone has. I’m not saying that the new AT&T is immune from the defensiveness described above as “Big Bell Dogma” (are any of us?), but I ask that no one equate the two.

2 Responses to “Mobile Declaration of Independence: Our Oppressor”

  1. […] This is a classic case of “Big Bell Dogma,” where one party, which is threatened by advances in mobility, actively works to slow the adoption of the technologies that are threatening.  […]

  2. […] two years ago, I introduced the concept of “Big Bell Dogma” on this blog. I also discussed the concept last year in my […]

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