105 of 111 people found the following review helpful
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.
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.
38 of 42 people found the following review helpful
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...
46 of 53 people found the following review helpful
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. 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.
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
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!
27 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on April 17, 2011
The great thing about prophecy is the prophet cannot lose, regardless of his prediction. If his doom-and-gloom prediction comes true, the prophet can rightly say "I told you so". If instead, disaster is averted, the prophet can claim his warning put us on the right path.
So what to make of Wu's latest tome? After 300 pages of doom-and-gloom leading up to the climax, Wu hedges his bets and makes no prediction either way. He suggests the "Separations Principle" as a way to preserve the openness of the Internet but then like a wide receiver going over the middle, pulls his arms in and ducks the ultimate prediction -- does Wu think the Internet will fall to the "Cycle" or not? Don't be fooled by Wu's statement "why the Internet will be different". A careful reading reveals he's not convinced that it WILL be different, only that it CAN be different, if only the government imposes his "Separations Principle".
As you know, Wu coined the term "Net Neutrality" in the early 2000s. He wrote his book before the FCC's December, 2010 net neutraility decision (which will be appealed as soon as the rules are published in the Federal Register). That should please him. But the last time the FCC ordered net neutrality (in the Comcast decision), the DC Circuit struck down the decision. But I digress.
Wu spins an elegant story. But I'm no expert in movies, television, radio, or cable. So it's hard to know just how accurate he is in describing the "Cycle" as applied to those industries. But I know a little bit about the history of telephony. If Wu's accuracy (or lack thereof) in his telephone chapters is representative of the book as a whole, I have to doubt some of his conclusions.
Take chapter 18 for example ("The Return of AT&T"). On page 246, he accuses SBC of a series of nefarious deeds, but one will look in vain in the end-notes for a reference to ANY of them (I'm not saying that SBC is innocent, just that it would be nice to have references so the reader can decide for himself). At the bottom of the page, he cites the Trinko case as an example of the courts allowing the free markets to work at the expense of competition. The Trinko decision says nothing of the sort -- essentially, SCOTUS decided in Trinko that the 1996 Telecommunications Act governed behavior between carriers and that there had been no anti-trust violation. And while the Court didn't cite lack of standing per se, its clear to anyone reading the decision that AT&T, if it were truly harmed by Verizon's behaviour, should have brought the suit, not a customer of AT&T.
On p247, Wu cites SBC opposition to the "line-sharing" provisions of the '96 Telecom Act. Again Wu gives no reference, so it's hard to know exactly what he means. In the telephone business, the term "line-sharing" has a very specific meaning (it means resale or leasing of DSL). If Wu means the telcos opposed leasing their voice lines to competitors, then he is wrong. Incumbent telcos had to do this in order to enter the long-distance business. If instead, Wu is referring to leasing DSL to competitors, he would be correct. But of course, he fails to mention that nothing in the '96 Act requires incumbents to lease DSL to competitors.
In a footnote at p247, Wu refers to the FCC eliminating the "platform" sharing requirement, at the suggestion of the DC Court. Again, Wu fails to mention that the '96 Act does not require incumbents to lease a "platform" to competitors. The Act requires incumbents to lease switching capacity, access lines, and computer systems ("OSS"). The Court overruled the FCC and rightly so, but you'd never know it just by reading Wu's account.
All this is to say Wu goes to great lengths to paint incumbent telcos and AT&T in the worst possible light to support his theory of the Cycle. Anyone versed in telephone history can see the bias in Wu's presentation. As one not so versed in the history of film, radio, TV and cable, I have to wonder if evidence of Wu's bias is so apparent in other sections of his book.
Disclosure: I used to work for SBC and AT&T, but I no longer do (in fact, AT&T/SBC involuntarily "downsized" me three years ago so I have no reason to defend them). My opinions are strictly my own and do not reflect the position of any employer, past or present.
© Copyright Fred Goodwin, April 17, 2011
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on December 29, 2010
The strongest section of Tim Wu's history of American "information empires" is his analysis of the American film industry.
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.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
For the last 20 years we have been listening to starry-eyed techno-vangelists insist there has never been anything like the Internet, the Internet changes everything, no force can constrain Internet freedoms... well, if ever you were cynical, even skeptical, about the grandiosity of Internet-era rhetoric, grab Tim Wu's masterful book for comfort and backup.
Recounting the history of communications/tech empires since Bell, AT&T and Western Union, Wu ably demonstrates that the "Internet era" is traveling a familiar cycle -- one that doesn't bode well for users. Communications technologies have a nagging, predictable habit of exploding all over the landscape in egalitarian Wild West style, but then coming under the control of a monopoly or at most a cartel of oligarchs who maximize profits while foreclosing freedoms and options for the "user base." Thus did the Bell System become a benign monopoly offering the American people reliability instead of options or innovation; this did radio evolve from a woolly pack of hobbyists to a more profitable -- and much duller -- centrally controlled handful of networks; so it went with movies and television; so, contends Wu, it is bound to go with the Internet.
Wu's thesis, backed by his colorful 140-year survey of every serious telecommunications boom, is impossible to dismiss. If he is right, and the evolution of the World Wide Web is fated to follow Wu's "Cycle" pattern, then net neutrality is, pragmatically, a pipe dream; we can look forward to web content being controlled, suppressed, and tier-priced by a handful of unassailable networks in the same way that your local cable TV supplier controls what channels you receive, or your choice of smartphone dictates what apps you can access. This is the titular "master switch" -- a private interest's power to shut down, or at least dictate terms for, a critical communications network with one stroke. When it comes to the Internet we are, Wu makes plain, a lot closer to that state than we think.
This brilliant book is part business and economic text, part cultural survey of the information empires of our lifetime, and part warning. It proves two things. One, today's "information revolution" has painfully familiar rhythms. Two, we've probably already seen the Internet's free-rein heyday, and can look forward to a future whose terms are dictated by oligarchs such as Fox and Comcast. If the web were all LOLcats and Snooki this would be less worrisome; but as it's become our political, social and economic spinal column in very short order, the prospect of rich, elite private interests controlling... everything... is real and chilling.
Wu is an excellent, visionary writer who gives the Internet era what it has long lacked: history, antecedents and perspective. Please read this book and consider the awful consequences of Wu's "Cycle" in today's information marketplace.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Mr. Wu has given us an important angle on business history: how the telephone, motion-pictures, TV network (broadcast and cable), and Internet companies not only created new communications media but how they fought off earlier ones, such as telegraph. The book shows how these companies prospered and came to monopolize their fields. More importantly, we learn how they could stifle innovation as well as create it: the painful experience with early FM radio, for instance, or how the few motion-picture studios could enforce a Decency Code, or the fact that voicemail, modems, fax, private (non-Bell) and the Net itself was possible only after the 1980s breakup of Ma Bell. The "vertical" integration of a medium, how, say, the movie studios could dominate not just production but distribution -- individual movie theaters and chains.
We learn just how important patents can be, and how difficult it may be for the original inventor to keep control of his invention.
The book has immediacy, since Net neutrality is going to be up for review in 2011, and any changes would have major effects on the Net and the economy. Other proponents can tell you how important net-neutrality is now, but this book tells us how, time and again, past communications industries could stifle their competitors and the medium itself. This, above all, is a study of business, not how an innovation can succeed, not even how much money it can make its owners, but just how much power it can create.
UPDATE, April 2011: Given the proposed merger between AT&T and T-Mobile, which would narrow the major wireless-telephone providers to three, or maybe two, this book is more timely than ever -- especially given the book's fully-told history of the previous AT&T (Ma Bell) monopoly.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
The Master Switch is an interesting read on history that many Americans probably do not know. In The Master Switch we learn that while knowledge is power, the ability to distribute information is more powerful. Movie, radio and phone technologies are covered extensively, along with the influences of multiple parties in how those industries developed in the US.
These are powerful technologies with the ability to dictate the course of human thought and societies. Those that hold the power can either use it for the public good, or abuse it, but no matter how the power is used, that same power tends to want to perpetuate itself at the expense of innovation. The cycle is simple. A technology takes hold through small steps. Then it is consolidated over time, usually by a corporation, and with infrastructural considerations and support from government. Disruptive innovative technologies are slow to enter the marketplace because the giants are too large and present either huge financial or legal obstacles. Eventually, a disruptive technology cannot be ignored, and the old ways must adapt; just as TV replaced radio as a primary entertainment medium, and the web is slowly eroding many different telecommunication industries. Then the giants slowly embrace and work to control that new medium, consolidating power once again.
The Master Switch makes a case for moderate regulation with the input of industry, but not at the expense of neutrality or diversification of power. There are some interesting ideas about net neutrality in this book, but in the end, the devil will be in the details, and it is still questionable if the cycle can be broken.
The evolution of Bell Labs, ATT, CBS, NBC, ABC, Apple, the FCC, and google are contrasted and compared.
Clearly written and interesting history worth reading and understanding as we at a cross roads of the cycle in regards to the continued evolution of the web.
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
THE MASTER SWITCH is a highly entertaining tour of the history of today's major media industries: telephone, radio, television, motion pictures and the internet. It is also a work of theory, as Wu uses several lenses by which to view the developments in these industries. There is the "Kronos Effect" - where dominant companies swallow upstart firms who might grow to be threats; there is "The Cycle" - the constant push and pull between open and closed models; and there is "The Master Switch," which Wu demonstrates has been the constant goal of many a mogul and media titan, to centralize the flow of information so that it may be controlled by a single man. (They have all, so far, been men.)
The book reads like an extended New Yorker article, with the personalities and drama behind the developments of revolutionary technologies sketched briefly, yet with riveting, compelling detail. Coming from a man who (it is claimed) coined the phrase "net neutrality," I expected there to be more theoretical discussion of what constitutes information control and information freedom. But in the end, Wu mostly allows the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.
The chapter on how Hollywood films were able to be censored for years by a few pious moralists, simply because those censors needed only capture a few choke points, is particularly illuminating. This was not a government intervention, but a self-appointed private group. Wu implies that we need to fear similar interventions in our modern telecommunication systems since today's business leaders, Steve Jobs most definitely included, have designs on consolidating information behind their own Master Switches. It is precisely because so much telephone traffic goes through AT&T's switches, Wu points out, that the US government was able to enact its warrantless wiretapping schemes post-9/11.
All in all, this is a fascinating, informative book, well-researched and deftly composed. Highly recommended for folks who liked THE LONG TAIL, THE TIPPING POINT or THE BLACK SWAN.