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Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires Paperback – International Edition, January 1, 2012
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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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
*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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top customer reviews
This book tells the story of the consolidation of new inventions that impact our world in the hands of a few people who have their finger on a master switch of sorts.
Master Switch argues that the internet age is not so different from the age of the telegraph (they were working on a way to get "texting" machines into every home before radio hit!) or radio, or Hollywood, or Television, or cable TV.
The story is the same. A new disruptive technology comes along, and people with big lawyers and big world changing monopolist visions usurp it from small operators and inventors. Patent stealing, inventor scamming, government policy manipulation, and big law are used as levers to hoist new technology onto monopolist mounds of media conglomeration.
As a result we get stifling, repression of cool new inventions. Television, invented in 1929, doesn't see the light of day until 1939 and is totally usurped by the radio kingpins by 1949. AT&T invents the magnetic drive, answering machine, optical cable (breakthroughs we associate with the past 30 years) in 1930! But because these would cannibalize their core business, we had to wait until the breakup of MaBell in the 70's and 80's to see hard drives, high-speed internet, and answering machines...50 years after they were invented. It all just sat in Bell Labs R&D. They were a monopoly. And that is the story of the book. It squeezed-to-death what vestiges of naivete I had for the internet age freedoms we apparently enjoy today. I now understand Net neutrality. and the "cycle" of consolidation that is in play right now.
I now understand AT&T's evil plans against Google. And Googles evil plans against AT&T.
One owns the wires and can flip the master switch in collusion with the govn't. One owns the mind share of the citizenry and can manipulate perception with it's master switch much the way TV has influence culture before cable. AT&T owns the wires of the internet, Google owns our intentions via search. Will they decentralize? Will they become bigger monopolies?
Great book to read to get your head around whether or not the internet will go the way of all information industries before it.
The first 2/3rds or so of the book are somewhat torturous while building to the last section. The writing is dry, delivering a not very insightful summary of the US media and telco industry. It's central expose' simply stated is that large enterprises co-opt with the government to keep out new disruptive entrants that pose a threat to the existing power structure. Is that really surprising? Is it seriously any great revelation that upstart new entrants argue for competition when taking on a monopoly, and a monopoly argues for better service and public interest to protect itself? Is it shocking that when a new entrant fully succeeds in uprooting the monopoly, it starts acting like one and tries to defend itself by making the same argument of the monopolistic firm it replaced? As the ages old saying in politics goes, 'where you stand is a function of where you sit". Is it really insightful to point out that larger, better capitalized firms use the legal system to starve and delay weaker rivals? More specifically, does the author really think Steven Ross Warner Brothers conglomerate (which he started putting together in the 70's), was the business world's first attempt to lower the risk profile of volatile lines of business by combining them with more stable ones?
It doesn't start getting good until the 3rd to last chapter "A Surprising Wreck", where he puts in context the failed time Warner - AOL merger. Hindsight being 20/20, I probably should have just started reading here. The next chapter "Father and Son" is probably the best, with quality insight on the philosophical differences between Apple co-founders Wozniak (open system) vs Jobs (closed, vertically integrated), and how they define and inform the Book's central theme. His contrasting of Apple and Google is also decent.
But alas the momentum established by the two preceding chapters is quickly extinguished by closing one where the author conveys his policy prescription for guarding against the dangers of private sector concentration/monopoly in the information age. It contained so many leaps of faith, and unimplementable recommendations it was of little value. At the end day what the author may have failed to appreciate are 3 important things about the US system:
- The courts over time generally do a respectable job of breaking up monopolies;
- Innovation and the freer market, tend to root out inefficient biz models;
- Closed and open systems (i.e. Apple and Google) can co-exist, and it becomes more a matter of consumer choice.
But all that criticism aside, Wu does leave one with the impression that states (often acting in concert with large concentrated private entities) will attempt to wrestle control of promising and disruptive information technologies...and for those who didn't get that already, the book thus serves a highly useful purpose.
The only thing I was disappointed by was the relatively brief exploration of modern issues, including net neutrality. I cannot call this a criticism as the book is not marketed as a primer for net neutrality, but I was hoping for a little more content relating to the recent history of the Internet and the important issues to be solved for the future. Even though I tend to side with the author's position, I would agree that a more equal treatment of the other sides of this debate would have strengthened the argument. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent reading through "The Master Switch" and would enthusiastically encourage everyone to give it a look.