Breaking The Connection

When something goes wrong now, no one accepts responsibility.

In that case, what toppled I the corporate Goliath? Von Auw places the blame—or the credit, if you prefer—partly on the “judicial indisposition to credit the Bell System’s professions of concern for the public interest,” partly on the “possibility that the public may not be ready to grant to any private institution the exercise of so priestly a function as stewardship of a public trust,” and partly on the “parties to technopolitics” —that is, the regulators, attorneys, politicians, consumer advocates, and academic experts who “[make] a specialty out of gigging AT&T.”

Von Auw appears to have chosen his tone with the purpose of giving voice to the anger, frustration, bewilderment, bitterness, and pain of the men and women of the Bell System. Those people “would be less than human,” he declares, if they did not feel that they had been “somewhat abused” by the process that led to divestiture. The public ought not to be surprised, then, if some Bell employees have given way to a “feeling of resentment that the institution to which they have given their entire lives, an institution that embodies the earnest and sometimes inspired work of hundreds of thousands of people over the course of a hundred years, should have been undone by a coterie of envious bureaucrats, free-market zealots and glib politicians, not many of whom will be around to face the consequences.”

If there is any reason to welcome divestiture, von Auw concludes, it is that the executives of the new AT&T will be “relieved of the obligation of attempting to convince the public that there is any private institution on earth that honestly and actually pursues the objectives the Bell System professes.” At last those executives “will no longer need to ponder what the public interest may require of them.”

The reader must decide to what extent the words of aggrieved former officials of the Bell System deserve attention. Some people might prefer a history of AT&T that was written without reference to the motives of the employees, to anything as hazy as the Spirit of Service. But that would surely be a mistake. No one can predict the long-term consequences of divestiture, but one consequence seems clear: It dealt a large blow to the Spirit of Service. Already we are beginning to hear complaints that today, when something goes wrong with a telephone, no one accepts responsibility: The regional operating company refers the customer to AT&T, and AT&T, in turn, refers the customer to the operating company. Perhaps a spirit cannot survive division.

Charles Brown’s claim that the public’s desires prompted divestiture is not persuasive. Probably the public does not care whether the telephone system is run by one company or many, so long as the phones continue to work and the prices continue to seem reasonable. The decision to break up AT&T was made not by the public, but by government officials acting as representatives of the public and guardians, we must hope, of the public interest.

Theodore Vail’s guiding principles—“One Policy, One System, Universal Service”—have gone the way of gas lamps and trolley cars. No one can say today how history will judge divestiture, but after a little more than a year, a feeling of uneasiness clearly seems to be growing. A few years ago, if someone had asked, “Should we break up the Bell System?” ordinary people might have answered with ordinary common sense, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” That suggests a couple of good questions for historians: Was the Bell System broken in the late 1970s? And if it wasn’t, why did we fix it?

Bell Labs: Extraordinary Subsidiary