I have a two-hour wait while my kids take lessons. Right after I received "The Master Switch", I took it and a novel to lessons, the idea being that I'd start the former, and when I got bored I would switch to the latter. I never switched. Though "The Master Switch" is dense, it's not just well-documented non-fiction it's engagingly written non-fiction.
This is the saga of modern information/communication systems, starting with the telegraph & the movie industry, then telephone, AM radio, FM radio, television, cable television and the Internet. Information systems go through what Wu has named "The Cycle". They start out competitive free-market with innovations flying, then consolidate (frequently by nefarious methods) into 1-3 major players (monopoly or oligopoly). The big players, frequently with the help of the government, squash upstart innovations and particularly any new system = rival.
For example, the U.S. had a "vibrant decentralized AM marketplace", which the government literally wrecked in favor of regional monopolies (which became national oligopoly).
The title comes from Fred Friendly, CBS News president from 1951 to 1966. In speaking about whether or not there's free speech, Friendly said that you first had to determine "who controls the master switch". I find this quote very interesting, because Friendly resigned from CBS when the corporate chiefs decided to run the regularly scheduled episode of "The Lucy Show", rather than air the beginning of the U.S. Senate hearings questioning our involvement in the Vietnam War. This isn't mentioned in "The Master Switch", but I think it is illustrative of the very point Friendly was making. You can't have free flow of ideas and information if the content is selected by just a few.
The chapter on the Internet is open-ended. At this point, it isn't for sure that the Internet will follow The Cycle, and end up with it's content controlled by a very few corporate monoliths. But based on what has happened to prior information systems, we should be watchful. How would you like all your available websites to be picked by a FOX or by an MSNBC?
That may seem impossible now, but no one in the 1930's thought there would eventually be only a handful of radio station owners nationwide. Do you remember the 1992 documentary "The Panama Deception"? It won the 1993 Oscar for Best Documentary. Do you remember the brouhaha when PBS tried to air it? Nearly whole states were not able to watch it because the monolith corporate cable owners in their areas refused to air it, stating that it was unpatriotic in its implied criticism of the Panama "war". (The local PBS stations were forced to show another show in the time slot).
Wu doesn't mention "The Panama Deception", but he has other illustrations and notes that "a medium [of communication]... is literally something that comes between the speaker and the potential listeners.... If it becomes the means by which most people inform themselves, it can decisively reduce free speech by becoming ... the arbiter of who gets heard."
I was particularly struck by two of Wu's themes. First, the methods used by an information company to gain power do not have to be straightforward to succeed. Secondly, government regulation can both promote free market or squelch free market.
Take the 1st theme. AT&T, nationwide monopoly, was ordered to allow rivals access to it's switching equipment by renting them space in its buildings. AT&T complied, at rents 5000 times the going rate, and who could afford it? Similarly, Wu proposes that the greatest danger to a continuing free-market Internet is dedicated equipment. If everybody dumps their open-system PC for a closed-system iPad, that means that only Apple's browser would be available and there are lots of ways to block sites that haven't paid the a requisite fee to be available, or at least not easily available, on said browser. I'm not saying it definitely would happen, but how much faith do we put in a corporation INdefintely resisting good old greed when there's quarterly profits to be reported?
The second theme concerns the role of the government in promoting free flow of information. President Nixon forced AT&T to allow computer networking/Internet on it's lines, and also required it to accept non-AT&T equipment attachments, such as fax machines.* Similarly, President Clinton required AT&T to allow access to ISP's without deal-killing "rental charges". Both of these presidents, a Republican and a Democrat, did their parts to insure that the Internet, as an information system, was free-market.
On the other hand, the court of Chief Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, under Republican George W. Bush, gutted the Telecommunications Act, on the assumption that no regulation is good regulation. This is distinctly different from fellow Republicon presidents Nixon and Reagan, who believed in regulation that benefited competition. The Bush administration actually wrote that "competition didn't necessarily require that there be any extant competitors"!
As I mentioned, this book is a dense read, but it raises questions I didn't know enough to care about. To paraphrase Mr. Wu, the conseqences of allowing an information system to devolve into a monopoly are incalcuable. It's not just possible censorship (whether in the name of ideology or monetary greed), it's the guaranteed lost or delayed (can I use "squashed" one more time) innovations.
This review is written from the Uncorrected Proof.
* Bell Labs, part of AT&T, has many incredible technological breakthroughs to its credit. However, AT&T deliberately squashed or successfully delayed others, such as mobile phones, fax machines, voice mail, speaker phones, packet networking, fiber optics, and very early on, a phone answering machine with magnetic tape. Invented in 1934 by a Bell engineer, management killed it because, according to an internal memo, it would encourage people to not use the telephone! Magnetic tape would be invented (again) in the 1990's by Germans, and imported to the U.S sixty years after an American first invented it!