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on September 9, 2013
Wide eyed and wiser for the read. The "Cycle" of decentralized and centralized information industry history sounds like it could be dry. But this book blew my mind. I had no idea the early days of radio looked much like our internet today. A multitude of hobbyists (bloggers) and businesses used it in a freewheeling way, until megalomaniacs in govnt and big biz rounded it up into NBC and CBS and made it illegal to broadcast if you weren't them. Same for film and TV.
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.
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on July 2, 2017
I had really looked forward to this given all the positives, and associations with all-time classics like Postman's "Technopoly". Unfortunately I was mostly underwhelmed, and left disappointed. The central theme is the interplay between centralized models (in the extreme a vertically integrated monopoly), versus decentralized, free market competition....with the former as one might imagine being the bad guy. (Oddly however for most of the book, the author seems unsure if centralized monopoly or decentralized competition is best for media and communications industries (including content), often citing exceptions to positives and negatives of both.)

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.
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on May 29, 2014
I would highly recommend this book for anyone who has an interest in history, technology, or net neutrality. Since I fall into all three categories, for me, this book read like a gripping, page-turning novel. This 100+ year journey through multiple information industries was quite educational and entertaining, though a clear bias against corporate self-regulation or government sponsored monopolies can be found on nearly every page. Still, I felt the author's position was compellingly built. To take on over a century of history in less than 400 pages is very ambitious, but I was impressed by the level of detail the book went into for the various subjects covered. I do not claim to be an expert on the material, so I cannot comment on the level of misinformation, but the plentiful sources and footnotes adds to the book's credibility. I did find myself on rare occasion saying, "Hmm... I don't think that's quite right."

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.
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on July 22, 2015
Fascinating historical perspective on generations of communications infrastructure starting with the second half of 19th century (Western Union and the telegraph), to the telephone, and covering the movie industry, TV, cable, right up to our 21st Century Internet. The author's contention that successive generations follow a similar economic pattern has a lot of merit. Without a crystal ball, no one knows whether it will turn out the same with the Internet, but his well written book is food for thought and well worth reading.
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on June 8, 2014
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 monopolies of information, media conglomerates, how it started and grew, this is a wonderful book. It definitely gives a much better understanding to the information industries and what to look out for in the future

The content is 5-star, but i gave it a 4-star rating because i thought the author tried too hard at times to sound smart. For example, using big words when small will do just fine to make it seem more complex. That was a little annoying and came off as almost elitist. Outside of that, I did like the author. He played moderator pretty well and seemed like he really tried not to take sides. He was probably tempted to, but refrained and I applaud him for that. Overall it's a worthwhile read, but unless you're an English professor, have a Thesaurus handy.
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on December 9, 2013
This is a sweeping, definitive description of the information industries. It is a masterful, insightful saga of how the various information industries began, were challenged, how they changed - and how politics and dirty dealing made many of them less than they could have been. From Bell to Google this book explains how society and our individual lives have been altered by our interaction with these technologies. Author Tim Wu, a brilliant and engrossing writer, captures the "big picture" of the information age while relating it to the history and usage we experience in our everyday lives. I could have done without the Kronos reference - really gross even though accurate. This is a brilliant work of praise and condemnation which is fascinating from beginning to end.
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on September 14, 2013
The main premise of the book, as stated by the author: "To understand the forces threatening the Internet as we know it, we must understand how information technologies give rise to industries, and industries to empires. In other words, we must understand the nature of the Cycle, its dynamics, what makes it go, and what can arrest it. As with any economic theory, there are no laboratories but past experience...The pattern is distinctive. Every few decades, a new communications technology appears, bright with promise and possibility. It inspires a generation to dream of a better society, new forms of expression, alternative types of journalism. Yet each new technology eventually reveals its flaws, kinks, and limitations. For consumers, the technical novelty can wear thin, giving way to various kinds of dissatisfaction with the quality of content (which may tend toward the chaotic and the vulgar) and the reliability or security of service. From industry's perspective, the invention may inspire other dissatisfactions: a threat to the revenues of existing information channels that the new technology makes less essential, if not obsolete; a difficulty commoditizing (i.e., making a salable product out of) the technology's potential; or too much variation in standards or protocols of use to allow one to market a high quality product that will answer the consumers' dissatisfactions. "

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

1- "In fact, the place we find ourselves now is a place we have been before, albeit in different guise. And so understanding how the fate of the technologies of the twentieth century developed is important in making the twenty-first century better."

2- "Schumpeter's cycle of industrial life and death is an inspiration for this book. His thesis is that in the natural course of things, the new only rarely supplements the old; it usually destroys it. The old, however, doesn't, as it were, simply give up but rather tries to forestall death or co-opt its usurper--a la Kronos--with important implications."

3- "We have seen how important outsiders are to industrial innovation: they alone have the will or interest to challenge the dominant industry. And we have seen the power of considerations beyond wealth or security--factors outside the motivations of the ideal rational economic actor--in inspiring action to transform an industry."

4- "Here, then, we come to the second weakness that afflicts centralized systems of innovation: the necessity, by definition, of placing all control in a few hands. This is not to say that doing so holds no benefit. To be sure, there is less "waste": instead of ten companies competing to develop a better telephone--reinventing the wheel, as it were, every time--society's resources can be synchronized in their pursuit of the common goal. There is no duplication of research, with many laboratories chasing the same invention. Yet if all resources for solving any problem are directed by a single, centralized intelligence. that mastermind has to be right in predicting the future if innovation is to proceed effectively. And that's the problem: monopoly presumes a prescience that humans are seldom capable of. "

5- "For the combined forces of a dominant industry and the federal government can arrest the Cycle's otherwise inexorable progress, intimating for the prevailing order something like Kronos's fantasy of perpetual rule."

6- "Whether sanctioned by the state or not, monopolies represent a special kind of industrial concentration, with special consequences flowing from their dissolution. Often the useful results are delayed and unpredictable, while the negative outcomes are immediate and obvious."

7- "But what prevented monopoly and all centralized systems from realizing these efficiencies, in Hayek's view, was a fundamental failure to appreciate human limitations. With perfect information, a central planner could effect the best of all possible arrangements, but no such planner could ever hope to have all the relevant facts of local, regional, and national conditions to arrive at an adequately informed, or right, decision."

8- "As an object lesson in the way information networks can develop, it gives us occasion to consider what we truly want from our news and entertainment, as opposed to what sort of content we might be prepared to sustain, however passively, with our fleeting attention. For cable offered choices really only in the commercial range--(-enough, however, to suggest what a truly open medium could deliver to the nation, for better and for worse."

9- "With its hefty capitalization, it offers the information industries financial stability, and potentially a great freedom to explore risky projects. Yet despite that promise, the conglomerate can as easily become a hidebound, stifling master, obsessed with maximizing the revenue potential and flow of its intellectual property. At its worst, such an organization can carry the logic of mass cultural production to any extreme of banality as long as it seems financially feasible."

10- "For the information industries that now account for an ever increasing share of American and world GDP, the coming decade will be given over to a mighty effort to seize territory, to bolt the competition from its habitat. But this is not a case of one pack of wolves chasing another out of a prime valley. While it may sound fanciful, the contest in question is more like one of polar bears batting lions for domination of the world. Each animal, insuperably dominant in its natural element--the polar bear on ice and snow, the lion on the open plains--will undertake a land grab where it has no natural business being. The only practicable strategy will be a campaign of climate change, the polar bears seeking to cover as much of the world with snow as they can, while the lion tries to coax a savannah from the edges of a tundra. Sounds absurd, but for these mighty predators, it's simply the law of nature."

11- "The democratization of technological power has made the shape of the future hard to know, even for the best informed. The individual holds more power than at any time in the past century, and literally in the palm of his hand. Whether or not he can hold on to it is another matter."

12- "The American political system is designed to prevent abuses of pubic power. But where it has proved less vigilant is in those areas where the political meets the economic realm, where private economic power comes to bear on public life...We like to believe that our safeguards against concentrated political power will ultimately protect us from the consequences of accumulated economic power. But this hasn't always been so."

13- "For history shows that in seeking to prevent the exercise of abusive power in the information industries, government is among those actors whose power must be restrained. Government may function as a check on abusive power, but government itself is a power that must be checked. What I propose is not a regulatory approach but rather a constitutional approach to the information economy. By that I mean a regime whose goal is to constrain and divide all power that derives from the control of information."

14- "Let us. then, not fail to protect ourselves from the will of those who might seek domination of those resources we cannot do without. If we do not take this moment to secure our sovereignty over the choices that our information age has allowed us to enjoy, we cannot reasonably blame its loss on those who are free to enrich themselves by taking it from us in a manner history has foretold."
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on April 3, 2011
The Master Switch a powerful book that will influence policy debates for some time to come. My review follows. The book has two parts. The former discusses the history of communications media through the twentieth century and shows evidence for "The Cycle" of open innovation -> closed monopoly -> disruption. The latter, shorter part is more speculative and argues that the same fate will befall the Internet, absent aggressive intervention.

The first part of the book is unequivocally excellent. There are so many grand as well as little historical facts buried in there. Wu makes his case well for the claim that radio, telephony, film and television have all taken much the same path.

A point that Wu drives home repeatedly is that while free speech in law is always spoken of in the context of Governmental controls, the private entities that own or control the medium of speech play a far bigger role in practice in determining how much freedom of speech society has. In the U.S., we are used to regulating Governmental barriers to speech but not private ones, and a lot of the book is about exposing the problems with this approach.

An interesting angle the author takes is to look at the motives of the key men that shaped the "information industries" of the past. This is apposite given the enormous impact on history that each of these few has had, and I felt it added a layer of understanding compared to a purely factual account.

But let's cut to the chase--the argument about the future of the Internet. I wasn't sure whether I agreed or disagreed until I realized Wu is making two different claims, a weak one and a strong one, and does not separate them clearly.

The weak claim is simply that an open Internet is better for society in the long run than a closed one. Open and closed here are best understood via the exemplars of Google and Apple. Wu argues this reasonably well, and in any case not much argument is needed--most of us would consider it obvious on the face of it.

The strong claim, and the one that is used to justify intervention, is that a closed Internet will have such crippling effects on innovation and such chilling effects on free speech that it is our collective duty to learn from history and do something before the dystopian future materializes. This is where I think Wu's argument falls short.

To begin with, Wu doesn't have a clear reason why the Internet will follow the previous technologies, except, almost literally, "we can't be sure it won't." He overstates the similarities and downplays the differences.

Second, I believe Wu doesn't fully understand technology and the Internet in some key ways. Bizarrely, he appears to believe that the Internet's predilection for decentralization is due to our cultural values rather than technological and business realities prevalent when these systems were designed.

Finally, Wu has a tendency to see things in black and white, in terms of good and evil, which I find annoying, and more importantly, oversimplified. He quotes this sentence approvingly: "Once we replace the personal computer with a closed-platform device such as the iPad, we replace freedom, choice and the free market with oppression, censorship and monopoly." He also says that "no one denies that the future will be decided by one of two visions," in the context of iOS and Android. It isn't clear why he thinks they can't coexist the way the Mac and PC have.

Regardless of whether one buys his dystopian prognostications, Wu's paradigm of the "separations principle" is to be taken seriously. It is far broader than even net neutrality. There appear to be two key pillars: a separation of platforms and content, and limits on corporate structures to faciliate this--mainly vertical, but also horizontal, such as in the case of media conglomerates.

Interestingly, Wu wants the separations principle to be more of a societal-corporate norm than Governmental regulation. That said, he does call for more powers to the FCC, which is odd given that he is clear on the role that State actors have played in the past in enabling and condoning monopoly abuse (I quote):

"Again and again in the histories I have recounted, the state has shown itself an inferior arbiter of what is good for the information industries. The federal government's role in radio and television from the 1920s to the 1960s, for instance, was nothing short of a disgrace. In the service of chain broadcasting, it wrecked a vibrant, decentralized AM marketplace. At the behest of the ascendant radio industry, it blocked the arrival and prospects of FM radio, and then it put the brakes on television, reserving it for the NBC-CBS duopoly. Finally, from the 1950s through the 1960s, it did everything in its power to prevent cable television from challenging the primacy of the networks."

To his credit, Wu does seem to be aware of the contradiction, and appears to argue that the Government agencies can learn and change. It does seem like a stretch, however.

In summary, Wu deserves major kudos both for the historical treatment and for some very astute insights about the Internet. For example, in the last 2-3 years, Apple, Facebook, and Twitter have all made dramatic moves toward centralization, control and closed platforms. Wu seems to have foreseen this general trend more clearly than most techies did.[1] The book does have drawbacks, and I don't agree that the Internet will go the way of past monopolies without intervention. It should be very interesting to see what moves Wu will make now that he will be advising the FTC.

[1] While the book was published in late 2010, I assume that Wu's ideas are much older.
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on March 20, 2014
Consider this:
100 years ago (or 1900, to be precise) was when LA was not on the radar. San Francisco in CA was ranked 9th in size. Fast forward 100 years, and LA is number 2 after NY, and San Jose beats San Francisco to top 10, removing Detroit from the top 10 position.

LA is, well, entertainment: amusement parks, hollywood; and recreation: beaches, Vegas.

If you read this book, you will learn how people pushed out from NY moved westward and created Hollywood.

And always remember Nichola Tesla's quote: Marconi is a good fellow. He is using 17 of my patents. Let him continue.

Sam Mishra
Author,
Technology Strategy
[...]
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on April 22, 2011
Disclaimer: I am a telecommunications and Internet lawyer that works in many of the areas about which Professor Wu writes, so I may have more than a casual interest in the subject matter. Having said that, the first half of the book really goes beyond media and information policy but rather provides a thrilling and entertaining account of the larger-than-life personalities who helped shaped America's information infrastructure. This was a time when many CEOs, even when pursuing corporate profit, also seemed to have a sense of contributing to society's goals. Yes, often, they confused what was good for their own company with what was good for the country. The book also provides compelling stories relating to the cycle of innovation in various media and telecommunications fields -- stories that repeat themselves over and again. These stories leave us to question how the existing innovation explosion involving the way movies and television are distributed, instant messaging and text messaging, tweets, social media, search, mobile Internet access, music -- how the innovation surrounding these media will develop. The book might leave one with the urge to want to ensure our policies incubate and protect such innovation before owners of the Master Switch seek to dominate and control those spaces. In the end, though, I found the book leaving me optimistic over our country's history of innovation -- a history that survives sometimes against staggering odds and often born in the most humble circumstances, even for example a friend's garage. - Markham Erickson
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