ALL RIGHT, ladies and gentlemen, step up, puh-leez! This way to themonster show! See Corporatus Giganticus, the unparalleled, sensational, extraordinary, unbelievable, gargantuan, colossal wonder of the business world. American Telephone and Telegraph. Over a million employes, $114 billion worth of assets, 750 million shares of common stock, 24,000 buildings, 177,000 motor vehicles. An equipment division turning out 15 million new phonesets a year. Twenty-three operating companies putting through 180 billion annual calls. Cable enough to reach the sun and return three times over.
See the creature feed itself with 200 million paperclips or 3 million ballpoint pens at a gulp. Watch it collect $16 million in revenue every day -- $11,000 a minute. Observe as it swats away at 40 antitrust suits buzzing about its flanks, its eyes glittering with visions of A.D. 2000, when it hopes for yearly earnings of $20 billion. Marvel at the miracles evolving in its "brain," the research laboratory: they will include gadgets that let you pick up a phone to vote, get your mail and newspapers, recieve instructions on how to cook a chicken or fix your car's muffler, or get your ailments diagnosed by computer. Maybe even a cordless pocket-sized phone that you carry around, on which you can be reached anywhere instantly by anyone. (Careful, there; some people faint when they think about that one.)
This peepshow approach to his subject is acknowledged by Sonny Kleinfield, who disarmingly calls his book "a sort of serendipitous odyssey through (AT&T's) numberless corners." It was done originally as a set of newspaper pieces, and it skips blithely from great topics to small ones and back again, though managing (to paraphrase Thoreau) to saw all the sticks, bug and little. Who makes it to top management and why. How the future is planned for. The company's war with regulators and competitors. Who uses the phones and why. How "Ma Bell's" employes and shareholders feel about her (which is, predominantly, like members of a family.) How money is borrowed in $150-million chunks. The world of cheaters who use electronic "blue boxes" to dial toll calls free. The jockeying for visibility in the Yellow Pages. Even the true identity of the Time Lady -- for it is actually a human voice that tells us that at the next electonic chirp the time will be four-oh-seven-and-twenty-seconds.
All of this reads briskly, since Kleinfield is a good writer for his limited medium. He does fine vignettes of the controlled frenzy of the long distance network operating center, or the contrasting boredom of a stockholders' meeting. He can deftly pack masses of technical information into a comfortable paragraph, or catch an aspect of character in a flash -- like that of the chairman of the board casually putting his foot up on a coffee table, but first slipping a sheet of cardboard under his heel.
Nonetheless Kleinfield pays a price for his format. The Biggest Company on Earth can't focus for long on any of the fascinating quesitons that it lets us glimpse fleetingly. Corporate biography can and should to to the root of things. What does it mean for American society to have probably the best phone service in the world, but to get it from a company so huge that it is, in one employe's words, "like the sea . . . just always there." ycan the quality be separated from the virtual monopoly and the bigness? What are approrpriate management strategies to keep such a monster responsive to circumstances and free of torpidity? What kind of political control can a community exercise over a company that spends millions locally?
What are the social implications of having our communications system planned by executives who reach the top through a chain of promotions, with a precise square footage of desk and office assigned by company manual to each promotion? Talk about government bureaucracy! No wonder that, as one source put it to Kleinfield, the managers' heads gradually "become more and more Bell shaped." What happens to people served by and working in the labyrinth of exchanges as automation marches on? What are the sinister potentials of the company's wiretapping its own dissident employes, as one Texas Bell former executive claims happened to him when he blew the whistle on political bribery by his superiors. (He won a harassment suit in a Texas courtroom because of it, though the verdict was later reversed on appeal.)
These are hard and disturbing questions that pierce to the heart of our present civilization. That Kleinfield does not deal deeply with them does not spoil his show, but it means that this pleasant book will most probably be no better remembered than earlier works on the same topic. Ma Bell, after all (herself a phony, folksy image-maker's creation), may simply be too big for a single protrait to do her justice.