Unless you're very young, you have memory of the "Dark Ages" of technology. Yes, there was a time before the Internet...even a time before the ancient 14 kbs modem. I know it's hard for us to believe, but you used to have to be there if somebody was calling AND you didn't know who it was until you picked up the phone! The answering machine could have been available in the 1950s, but why didn't they come out until a few decades ago?
The book has interesting points on technology cycles, which I'll get into in a moment, but first I'd like to congratulate the author on doing such a great job of giving a background history lesson. The topic helps because the history of information empires is every bit as interesting as the rise of military empires. It's all about strategies, "bloody" battles, and luck. It's just the weapons used that differ. Still, most of us have seen even exciting history made boring by poor writing. Mr. Wu keeps things interesting by giving the personal reasons for certain decisions and the circumstances leading to them, not just a bunch of dry dates. Some of the history discussed I was familiar with, but a lot of it was brand new to me.
Several ideas presented on the cycles were thought provoking. Most of us are conditioned to immediately think monopoly = bad, but the point of view of the monopolists helps explain why society allowed them to exist. For example, before modern telephone infrastructure existed it almost took a gigantic AT&T to have the drive to force to link up every person to a phone line; while their methods of dealing with opposition were at times abhorrent, they still succeeded in using the monopoly's advantages (economies of scale, no duplication of research by different companies, steady income, etc.) to do a great deal of good. Bell Labs not only researched phone related technologies for the company but also provided resources and advancements in entirely unrelated areas. On the other hand, all was not altruistic. The same advantages that helped it expand and provide service also stifled progress as the monopoly jealously guarded itself against competitors and devoured or squashed possible competitors. They succeeded in connecting nearly everybody for the common good, even rural farms that likely would have been unconnected far longer because of greater costs per user in small population areas. However, those who are old enough will remember when there was only one choice of phone and it was an AT&T phone only. Once AT&T was broken up, we saw tremendous advances in technology and cost benefits to customers. The point being, things aren't purely black and white.
The issues of information control and free speech were also fascinating. To me the most interesting was censorship in Hollywood. It's a lesson in unintended consequences. The big studios' very "monopoly" allowed them to succumb to rules of conduct that had married couples depicted sleeping in separate beds for years. In that case rules came from the private sector in the form of religious groups threatening boycotts. There too you see a dichotomy. On one hand, the threat was private individuals in a sense voting with their money and what could be more democratic than voting? On the other hand though, people who didn't agree with those rules had their ability to watch uncensored materials taken away from them in the name of somebody else's view of the public good. It's this kind of struggle for balance we see over and over and over again with the advent of new technologies.
I love reading about history and watching documentaries. The adage "History repeats itself." is shown to be true time after time. It's funny how we all think we're so unique, doing things for the first time, but looking back (in some form) most everything's been done before. From the phones, to radio, to the Internet, you can see how the cycle of inventor becomes a wide open free-for-all becomes a tightly controlled industry, and eventually is usurped by some new idea from the outside that changes the rules of the game. It's all one big cycle of progress.
Now if only I could figure out what the next major cycle will be, I'd be a very rich man...