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Ruling the Waves: Cycles of Discovery, Chaos, and Wealth, from the Compass to the Internet Hardcover – September 21, 2001

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In an attempt to place the commercialization of the Internet in historical context, Spar argues that advances in communications technology from oceangoing ships to the Internet occur in successive phases of innovation, com- mercialization, creative anarchy and rules. Discoveries by researchers and explorers acquire commercial value, she claims, which attracts both investment and pirates. The increasing value of the former subsidizes efforts to suppress the latter. Out of that conflict emerges a legal structure to support the new industry. Spar, a professor at the Harvard Business School, traces this cycle seven times, in European oceangoing trade from the 15th to the 18th century; telegraph, radio and satellite television; cryptography, software and digital music reproduction. Although her thesis is provocative, it's not precise enough to yield dramatic insights. For example, the author defines all lawbreaking as piracy. In her view, Phil Zimmerman, who developed the e-mail security code known as Pretty Good Privacy, was a pirate who gave it away for free in possible violation of U.S. technology export control laws, though this reverses the common usage in which a pirate steals something from others. Since laws are unclear during periods of innovation, the author can label anyone a pirate when necessary for her model. Often in her account, the same figures are pirates and opponents of piracy (the subtitle subtly illustrates this). The first three chapters are sketchy attempts to cover broad topics in a small space, while the last four focus selectively on narrow aspects of the innovation in question (for example, the software chapter is mainly an account of the Microsoft antitrust case). Despite its defects, the book raises worthwhile questions and delivers compelling anecdotes. Undemanding readers and browsers will not be disappointed.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

To understand what the Internet revolution holds in store, Spar suggests, we need only look to the past. Spar, a Harvard Business School professor, argues eloquently that history shows that "life along the technological frontier moves through four distinct phases." With a rich array of examples, she describes the phases as they follow a pattern of innovation, commercialization, creative anarchy, and governance. She illustrates how early commerce on the high seas became the target of piracy, how Gutenberg's printing press threatened the authority of the church, and how the British navy at first usurped Marconi's radio. Highlighting the dynamic give-and-take between government and business--between politics and commerce--she explains how rules evolve to "control" new technologies and how the creators of those technologies eventually accept the rules in order to protect themselves. Although drawing parallels between Caribbean pirates and Napster downloaders or between Gugliemo Marconi and Marc Andreessen may seem superficial at first, Spar's skillful, detailed narratives make those comparisons meaningfully instructive. David Rouse
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Harcourt; 1 edition (September 21, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0151005095
  • ISBN-13: 978-0151005093
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,473,512 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Tim F. Martin on June 30, 2005
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
_Ruling the Waves_ by Debora L. Spar is a fascinating book on the history of business and politics in the fields of emerging technologies, one I honestly feel everyone should read, as it is invaluable for the sense of context and perspective it provides.

Much has been made about how truly revolutionary the internet is, how that its very existence breaks all the old rules, that it is going to steer the world towards a new social order, perhaps even sever the link between the market and the state. Many prophets have proclaimed how the internet will create a realm where government has no force, where big business is powerless, and where many things - such as music - will essentially be free.

Spar readily acknowledges that the net is indeed radical and that it will produce many changes in society, politics, government, and business. However, she sought through this book to show that the emergence of the internet is not without precedent, that it is perhaps just another arc along technology's frontier. By comparing the changes brought about by the development of transoceanic commerce during the Age of Exploration and the arrival of the telegraph, radio, satellite television, and publicly available encryption technology with the rise (and possible fall) of Microsoft (looking at both the issue of operating systems and web browsers) and the advent of MP3 technology, Spar showed how the worlds of government and commerce have coped again and again with what were at the time paradigm-shattering revolutionary developments. The end of the dominance of big business and government has been predicted several times before and in each case the prophets were wrong.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Rick Sline on October 1, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Professor Debrora Spar's explanation of key factors in the creation, building, and usage of key technologies over the last millineum. Her chronology starts with the beginnings of global navigation (pre Columbus) and the corresponding mayhem that ensued over the years via profit making, profiteering and pirating - all of which are not only inner-related but have gray boundaries been them. The chronology brings us through the development of communication first by telegraphy, then radio, television, cryptography, computers (a la Microsoft's trials and tribulations), internet and finally to the continuing saga of MP3 music.
The book actually opens with the story of the Vatican's dismissal of a too-liberal French bishop Jacques Gaillot to the remote Sahara outpost of Partenia. Not to be silenced, Bishop Gaillot continues his ministry and in fact expands it, by bringing his case to the internet - Partenia has thus become his soap box to be read by many more people than he ever could have reached had he be allowed to remain in France and only speak to those he came in personal contact with. Thus it has been throughout history - the new technology and the messages they carry are unstoppable.
Interwoven in this scholarly yet entertaining book are the concepts of each technologies stages of chaos, anarchy, self-regulation, deal making and deal braking, piracy, monopoly, and attempts at government control. Interestingly, in most cases the founders and early pioneers end up with little more than historical recognition.
There is no simple solution, no way to predict the future; Spar suggests a number of stages and issues that seem to repeat.
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9 of 12 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on September 25, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Finally, a book that doesn't treat the Internet like the end of the old world, or the beginning of a new one. Instead, "Ruling the Waves" is a fascinating and innovative analysis that takes a refreshing look at the Internet well beyond the hype, placing it in historical perspective, and arguing that we've seen similar patterns playing out in lots of previous technologies: in ocean-going trade, telegraphs, radio and so forth. I found the parallels informative and deeply insightful. Clearly, the author knows a lot about current technologies, but she doesn't get all caught up in the usual hype that surrounds them. Most importantly, I gained a much better understanding and clearer perspective of the current interaction between politics and technology. The book makes a compelling argument as to why government will have to play a much large role in regulating the new economy.
Ruling the Waves Rules! An absolute must read!
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful By L. Bures on March 27, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Debora L. Spar's "Ruling the Waves: Cycles of Discovery, Chaos, and Wealth from the Compass to the Internet" is a fascinating and very well-written account of the ways in which new technologies create new markets and new commercial realms, which in turn spur demand for new rules, standards, and property rights to govern them. Drawing on the work of economic historian Douglass North, Spar argues that without rules (whether provided by government or private initiative), commerce cannot flourish. "Ruling the Waves" tells the stories of the development of a number of technologies that were revolutionary in their time (both past and present)--from advances in shipbuilding and navigation that made transoceanic sailing voyages possible in the fifteenth century, to telegraphy in the nineteenth century, to radio in the twentieth century, BSkyB's satellite and digital television, the Internet and encryption technologies, Net browsers and Microsoft Internet Explorer, and MP3 online music technology. Spar describes how each of these new technologies created a new commercial space on the "technological frontier," attracting pirates, pioneers, and competitors, and how, in each case, new rules were formed, often at the behest of private firms and often arbitrated and enforced by governments, so that the new markets could grow and profits could be made.
In presenting these stories, Spar puts newer technologies, like the Internet and MP3, in historical perspective. Transoceanic sailing voyages opened the uncharted territory of the high seas to commercial pioneers and pirates alike, but eventually the great trading companies and governments and their navies were able to virtually eliminate the scourge of piracy by defining and outlawing the practice and enforcing these laws.
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