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The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires (Vintage) [Kindle Edition]

Tim Wu
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (126 customer reviews)

Print List Price: $15.95
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Book Description

In this age of an open Internet, it is easy to forget that every American information industry, beginning with the telephone, has eventually been taken captive by some ruthless monopoly or cartel. With all our media now traveling a single network, an unprecedented potential is building for centralized control over what Americans see and hear. Could history repeat itself with the next industrial consolidation? Could the Internet—the entire flow of American information—come to be ruled by one corporate leviathan in possession of “the master switch”? That is the big question of Tim Wu’s pathbreaking book.

As Wu’s sweeping history shows, each of the new media of the twentieth century—radio, telephone, television, and film—was born free and open. Each invited unrestricted use and enterprising experiment until some would-be mogul battled his way to total domination. Here are stories of an uncommon will to power, the power over information: Adolph Zukor, who took a technology once used as commonly as YouTube is today and made it the exclusive prerogative of a kingdom called Hollywood . . . NBC’s founder, David Sarnoff, who, to save his broadcast empire from disruptive visionaries, bullied one inventor (of electronic television) into alcoholic despair and another (this one of FM radio, and his boyhood friend) into suicide . . . And foremost, Theodore Vail, founder of the Bell System, the greatest information empire of all time, and a capitalist whose faith in Soviet-style central planning set the course of every information industry thereafter.

Explaining how invention begets industry and industry begets empire—a progress often blessed by government, typically with stifling consequences for free expression and technical innovation alike—Wu identifies a time-honored pattern in the maneuvers of today’s great information powers: Apple, Google, and an eerily resurgent AT&T. A battle royal looms for the Internet’s future, and with almost every aspect of our lives now dependent on that network, this is one war we dare not tune out.

Part industrial exposé, part meditation on what freedom requires in the information age, The Master Switch is a stirring illumination of a drama that has played out over decades in the shadows of our national life and now culminates with terrifying implications for our future.


From the Hardcover edition.


Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. According to Columbia professor and policy advocate Wu (Who Controls the Internet), the great information empires of the 20th century have followed a clear and distinctive pattern: after the chaos that follows a major technological innovation, a corporate power intervenes and centralizes control of the new medium--the master switch. Wu chronicles the turning points of the century' s information landscape: those decisive moments when a medium opens or closes, from the development of radio to the Internet revolution, where centralizing control could have devastating consequences. To Wu, subjecting the information economy to the traditional methods of dealing with concentrations of industrial power is an unacceptable control of our most essential resource. He advocates not a regulatory approach but rather a constitutional approach that would enforce distance between the major functions in the information economy--those who develop information, those who own the network infrastructure on which it travels, and those who control the venues of access--and keep corporate and governmental power in check. By fighting vertical integration, a Separations Principle would remove the temptations and vulnerabilities to which such entities are prone. Wu' s engaging narrative and remarkable historical detail make this a compelling and galvanizing cry for sanity--and necessary deregulation--in the information age.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* A veteran of Silicon Valley and professor at Columbia University, Wu is an author and policy advocate best known for coining the term net neutrality. Although the Internet has created a world of openness and access unprecedented in human history, Wu is quick to point out that the early phases of telephony, film, and radio offered similar opportunities for the hobbyist, inventor, and creative individual, only to be centralized and controlled by corporate interests, monopolized, broken into smaller entities, and then reconsolidated. Wu calls this the Cycle, and nowhere is it more exemplary than in the telecommunications industry. The question Wu raises is whether the Internet is different, or whether we are merely in the early open phase of a technology that is to be usurped and controlled by profiteering interests. Central in the power struggle is the difference between the way Apple Computer and Google treat content, with Apple attempting to control the user experience with slick products while Google endeavors to democratize content, giving the user choice and openness. This is an essential look at the directions that personal computing could be headed depending on which policies and worldviews come to dominate control over the Internet. --David Siegfried

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
98 of 104 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant and Informative August 26, 2010
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Warning: This is not light reading. The book is well-written but is not designed as entertainment. If, however, you are concerned about the Internet and potentially where it might go in the near future, or more specifically, how it might wind up controlled, this book will be an interesting and informative read. Important too because communication and information dissemination are vital to the freedom of us all.

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.
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44 of 49 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A complex, complete and compelling story of business October 29, 2010
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
The Master Switch is part history, business theory and technology presented in a clear and enjoyable read. This is neither a business book, nor a history book, nor a novel but it has the best elements of all three. Some advice for the reader, be prepared to read a book about business information and technology this is deep, complex, expansive and thoroughly enjoyable.

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.
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34 of 38 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Incredible History of Information Technology September 21, 2010
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
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.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars If you use TV, Internet, Radio, or ...
If you use TV, Internet, Radio, or anything broadcast or even go to the movies you need to read this book. Left to the government we are about to get screwed again!
Published 4 hours ago by Irving Litchfield
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Very contemporary issues.
Published 13 hours ago by Noel Colon
5.0 out of 5 stars simply phenomenal!
For the recapitulation of history alone, this book is worth a close read. Add to that a thesis that while not altogether tight still quite proactive, this is a must read book of... Read more
Published 1 day ago by Skeptical Reader
5.0 out of 5 stars Perspective on the communications revolution
Highly recommended, perhaps the best book I have read about the era from telegraph (Western Union) to the internet and the cloud.
Published 1 month ago by Patricia L. Hossenlopp
4.0 out of 5 stars Very Relevant
This book is extremely relevant right now with all the Net Neutrality talks in Washington D.C.
Net Neutrality is on it's deathbed, so if you're interested in the history of... Read more
Published 1 month ago by TrailMix
4.0 out of 5 stars A gripping history builds to a compelling warning
I would highly recommend this book for anyone who has an interest in history, technology, or net neutrality. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Vlad Buckets
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant
A must read book to everyone interested not only about the internet, but also information industries as a whole through history.
Published 1 month ago by Guilherme Felitti
2.0 out of 5 stars Counterbalance to the Adulation
An informative if not very deep look at history, with a simplistic binary model and much adulation of Google‚ views hardly well defended by a weak "that's unfair! Read more
Published 2 months ago by Jeremy Mates
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant
this is a nice book to assign to students. it has concepts, organization, and story.
there is enough story about it to keep it interesting. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Soren Kerk
5.0 out of 5 stars a fascinating, important book.
Everyone should read this book. It is a fascinating history of things we have taken for granted and just assumed grew organically. Read more
Published 3 months ago by michael visconti
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More About the Author

Tim Wu is a professor at Columbia Law School, the chairman of media reform organization Free Press, and the co-author of Who Controls the Internet? (Oxford U. Press, 2006). Wu was recognized in 2006 as one of 50 leaders in science and technology by Scientific American magazine. In 2007 Wu was listed as one of Harvard's 100 most influential graduates by 02138 magazine.

Tim Wu's best known work is the development of Net Neutrality theory, but he has also written about copyright, international trade, and the study of law-breaking. He previously worked for Riverstone Networks in the telecommunications industry in Silicon Valley, and was a law clerk for Judge Richard Posner and Justice Stephen Breyer. He graduated from McGill University (B.Sc.), and Harvard Law School.

Wu has written for the New Yorker, the Washington Post, Forbes, Slate magazine, and others. He is a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and once worked at Hoo's Dumplings.

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