The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires Paperback – Nov 29 2011
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A New Yorker and Fortune Best Book of the Year
“Thought-provoking. . . . An intellectually ambitious history of modern communications.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Fascinating, balanced, and rigorous—a tour de force.”
—The New York Review of Books
“Entertaining. . . . There’s a sharp insight and a surprising fact on nearly every page of Wu’s masterful survey.”
—The Boston Globe
“Unexpectedly fascinating. . . . A substantial and well-written account of the five major communications industries that have shaped the world as we know it: telephony, radio, movies, television and the Internet. . . . The economy and common sense of The Master Switch . . . makes it valuable to the non-wonk wondering how we got where we are today, and where we might be headed next.”
“Engaging. . . . Wu presents a powerful case. . . . His scholarly command of the past century of communications innovation is prodigious.”
—The Plain Dealer
“My pick for economics book of the year.”
—Ezra Klein, The Washington Post
“An explosive history that makes it clear how the information business became what it is today. Important reading.”
—Chris Anderson, author of The Long Tail and Free, and editor of Wired magazine
“A brilliant explanation and history. . . . As fascinating, wide-ranging, and, ultimately, inspiring book about communications policy and the information industries as you could hope to find. . . . Wu is that rare animal, an accomplished scholar who can write about complex ideas in ways that are accessible to all. And the ideas he’s covering are as important as any in our ideological marketplace today.”
—Cory Doctorow, Boing Boing
“Groundbreaking. . . . Offers powerful lessons from the past for the future of the Internet.”
“Original, insightful. . . . Wu provides a compelling reminder of the monopolist instincts of communications and media companies.”
—The Washington Monthly
“Masterful. . . . Eminently readable. . . . A superstar in the telecommunications world . . . Wu has a way of presenting complex and important concepts in a clear and understandable way.”
—Art Brodsky, The Huffington Post
“Wu is the rare writer capable of exhuming history and also interpreting current affairs. In this profound and important book, he excels at both.”
“Wu’s work is a must read for those who want to know about the future of the Internet. The Master Switch is brilliant, with a distinctive voice that comes through on every page.”
—Josh Silverman, CEO, Skype
“As a history lesson for anyone interested in how innovations move from inventors’ garages and laboratories to our living rooms, The Master Switch is a good read, but it is its relevance to the evolution of the Internet that makes it an important book.”
—Times Higher Education Supplement
“Trenchant and provocative. . . . In vivid and often depressing detail, Wu describes how the true inventors and innovators of information technology have been destroyed by their self-aggrandizing counterparts in the executive offices.”
“A free and open Internet is not a given. Indeed, corporate interests are working feverishly to seize control of it. Drawing on history, Wu shows how this could easily happen and why we are at risk of losing the freedom we now take for granted. A must-read for all Americans who want to remain the ones deciding what they can read, watch, and listen to.”
“An ambitious history of the communications industries in the 20th century. . . . [Full of] great stories, and Wu tells them expertly.”
—The Guardian (London)
“The Master Switch is a provocative thesis on where the Internet has come from and where it is headed. It will interest technology enthusiasts and all who value a vibrant media market.”
“Wu’s engaging narrative and remarkable historical detail make this a compelling and galvanizing cry for sanity . . . in the information age.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
About the Author
Tim Wu is an author, policy advocate and professor at Columbia University, currently serving as Senior Advisor to the United States Federal Trade Commission. In 2006, he was recognized as one of fifty leaders in science and technology by Scientific American magazine, and in the following year, 01238 magazine listed him as one of Harvard’s one hundred most influential graduates. He writes for Slate, where he won the Lowell Thomas gold medal for travel journalism, and he has contributed to The New Yorker, Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Forbes.See all Product Description
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Top Customer Reviews
Tim Wu is a professor of law at New York's Columbia University and his book comes as a refreshingly useful contribution, not only for the general reader but for the think tanks which are trying to guide the great media organizations into an uncertain future. The book covers several electrical/electronic communications media (the telephone, radio, film, television, the internet) from an evolutionary point of view. The "invention" of each medium is evoked vividly: for example, Alexander Graham Bell's first phone call to his assistant Watson in the next room, and John Logie Baird with his flickery 30-line picture of a tailor's dummy. The book's main themes however are non-technical, namely business and economics and above all, corporate power. If it were not for the need to keep the book reasonably short, a consideration of print as a medium would also have been instructive. Print is the oldest medium and it is still viable although fundamentally different from the electronic media.
In "The Master Switch", Prof.Wu seeks to draw a parallel between the different media in a kind of evolutionary theory which starts out with an invention, goes on to an "open" (free-for-all) state and then culminates in the domination of the industry by one or two large organizations. This evolutionary approach is attractive to the person who likes a neat formula that would fit into a sound bite. However there are notable exceptions, for example in the UK.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Columbia University Professor Tim Wu takes us on an in-depth tour of the history of the communication empires of telephone, radio, television, and now the Internet. Wu's analyses and conclusions are both brilliant as well as at times somewhat surprising. Every page gives evidence of Wu's thorough research, careful thinking and insights that went into the writing of this fine work.
The internet has become part of the lives of almost everyone, with its freeing and empowering presence; in fact in important ways it has become indispensable. A not-too-surprising worry might be that the federal government may someday try to control it, not so overwhelmingly as does the government of China of course, but the possibility is there.
What Wu so sagatiously points out is that that threat of control could just as easily, or actually more easily, come from the private sector, because in fact the existence of the internet and its smooth functioning are dependent, not on the government, but private enterprise. A different kind of monopoly looms ahead of us as a distinct danger, and this present information age presents new policy and regulation challenges.
One hopes that the right government officials at the federal level take heed to this awesomely researched book.
If you would like to understand more accurately recent decades as well as the present time the huge corporations that have in the past but also could one of these days control the ways and means of communication, by all means give this worthy work a read.
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...
Wu demonstrates throughout the book his ability to research and capture the historical events that led to the world we have today and present them more like James Michener than a dry recitation. The details and descriptions led me to feel like I was reading a historical novel more than a business book. Yet all of the conversation revolves round issues of information, technology and business ownership of it.
Wu demonstrates his business thinking through the book and research findings. This is a business book as it discusses how information and new technologies often start out as an explosion of small companies that coalesce into a few dominate firms that then often explode into smaller more innovative companies. Those ideas, the decisions and actions behind them are the context that gives the business history context.
The Master Switch is a rare combination of history, theory and technology. People looking to read the book from one of these perspectives will either be delighted or deeply disappointed. As a history, the book is a delight as I learned things I never knew before. As a business book, one with a very clear argument, sequential prose and an explicit `bottom line' this book suffers because it meanders through the history parts. Readers looking for a business book should reset their expectations and get the Master Switch. Reset their expectations from the perspective that rather than loading your brain with `programmed' messages, it may be better to get a broader perspective that will let you think through these critical issues. Setting your expectation to read something enjoyable, informative and comprehensive and you will not be disappointed.
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!
If you've ever wondered why the merely boring Heaven's Gate destroyed a Hollywood studio and exiled a major director to the margins of the film industry and the execrably bad Phantom Menace spawned two more films, The Master Switch provides the answer.
Heaven's Gate was a standalone work of art that had to make its money at the box office. The Star Wars prequels were essentially branding efforts designed to sell not only theater tickets by toys, trinkets, coffee cups, t-shirts and anything else they could use the film to advertise.
Tim Wu's discussion of the film industry and of the kind of media conglomerate created by Steve Ross and best characterized by companies like Viacom and Time Warner is so clear and so elegant, it makes you wish the rest of the book were as good.
The weakest section of The Master Switch is, interestingly enough, the last part, Wu's analysis of the Internet and of net neutrality. It's not necessarily bad writing, and it obviously has the disadvantage of covering current events and not history, but it reads too much like a press release for Google.
The first half of the book is a solid history of the telecommunications industry. The writing is clear, precise, and never boring. He introduces figures you've probably never heard of, Harry Tuttle, for example, who barely shows up in a Google search and doesn't even seem to have a Wikipedia page. Wu also discusses events that are as important to understanding our history as they are obscure, Western Union's machinations to help Rutherford B. Hayes steal the election from Tilden.
All in all, I'd give this book 4.5 stars if I could, but I think it closes out too weak for a fifth star.
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