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The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires (Borzoi Books) [Hardcover]

Tim Wu
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)

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Book Description

2 Nov 2010 Borzoi Books
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.


Product details

  • Hardcover: 366 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group (2 Nov 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307269930
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307269935
  • Product Dimensions: 24.3 x 16.7 x 3.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 672,365 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

`Magisterial... Wu is a wonk, a Silicon Valley princeling and a professor at Columbia University. He will, in short, be heard and rightly so... If new media laws are to be made, this book will be a key document.' --Sunday Times

'Wu is the rare writer capable of exhuming history and also interpreting current affairs. In this profound and important book, he excels at both.' --New Scientist --This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.

From the Publisher

From the world's preeminent historian of technology comes the story of the battle raging between Apple and Google over the soul of the Internet. With their conflicting vision of information democracy versus corporate autocracy, it is a titanic clash: only one brand will survive, and that brand will shape our future. --This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Who will run the Internet and how? 26 Dec 2010
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
If you believe that understanding the past is a valuable guide to the future and if you are interested in the future of the media then this book is a "must read." The author, Tim Wu, is a professor at Columbia University and a veteran of Silicon Valley. He looks back at the history of the telephone, radio and television industries in the USA with a lawyer's eye and analyses the way that private enterprise has built powerful monopolies, at times with the assistance of a government, which, in theory at least, was keen to break up such structures.

Wu is the inventor of the term "net neutrality" and the analysis he uses the past to illustrate the possible challenges to the open nature of the Internet in the future. He poses the question is his title "Who will control the Master Switch of the Internet." He explains his notion of "the Cycle" in which information industries begin as the obsession of a lone inventor, are taken up by keen hobbyists and start out as open to all before becoming consolidated. He takes his analogy through telephone, cinema and radio.

He then argues that media end up being controlled by empire builders and closed to innovation. He paints fascinating pictures of the people behind the structures. Theodore Vail who created AT&T, David Sarnoff who built RCA and Adolph Zukor Paramount pictures. But just as interesting are the poignant stories of the inventors and would-be entrepreneurs who were pushed aside. We meet the pioneers of the failed mechanical television, the farmers who started local telephone and cable TV operations, the frustrated inventor of FM radio and more.

It is a very American book - Rupert Murdoch and New Corp get just a few lines and the BBC enjoys only a couple of brief walk-on parts.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Essential reading 11 April 2011
Format:Kindle Edition
If you have even a passing interest in the internet or communications technology in general, this book will provide a fascinating read for you.
The book has a grand theory about the cycle of communications technology, but the mainstay of the work is a revetting history of the subject.
If you have read and enjoyed any of Bill Bryson's work on science and technology then this book will give you more of the same.
It is packed full of the eccentric characters which populate Bryson's work, from visionaries to profiteers, despots to anarchists, all drawn with the same eye for detail and great story telling (although admittedly this book is not intended to be as humorous as Bryson's work).
Even if you are uninterested in the grand theory which this book sets out, then the history of the subject matter makes it a hugely enjoyable and a worthwhile read.
But this book goes beyond a simple history, it introduces a fascinating theory about the cycle of communications technology.
Timothy Wu focuses on disruptive technologies and how throughout modern history, such technologies have either been suppressed or subsumed (eaten up - the Kronos effect) by the owners of existing technology.
From telephone empires to movie studios, the radio network and cable TV this cycle is repeated again and again, and often the vested interests in the old technologies go to quite shocking lengths to destroy, or in some case steal away, the ideas that pose a threat to them.
For example, did you know that Bell Labs invented an answerphone in the 1930s but kept the details secret because the management felt it would be a threat to their phone business? Did you know the inventor / discoverer of FM radio had his technology suppresses by the powerfully radio oligarchy?
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
By Rolf Dobelli TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
Innovation has been a serial killer in the information industry since the advent of the telephone doomed the telegraph. Great advances in communications technology herald the start of new industries, but the corporate history of such breakthroughs shows a cycle of fragmentation followed by concentration, followed by another breakthrough and another splintered set of small companies chasing that innovation's promise. The Internet may defy this cycle. Whether control of the web will consolidate or remain diffuse remains to be seen. However, historic patterns suggest that today's major Internet companies may become part of larger media empires, thus centralizing control of online content. Columbia University professor Tim Wu offers a rich saga tracing the evolution of telecommunications industries, technology and regulations, and explains what these patterns portend. He says policy makers must limit corporate control of the web because open online information now is essential to society. getAbstract recommends Wu's book to readers interested in the future of the information industry and its centerpiece, the Internet.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
If you're concerned about net neutrality you should read this book. If you don't know what net neutrality is you should read this book.

The lessons of the past that Wu describes are fascinating. The effect he describes of companies who seek to set up their own "walled gardens" of content is worrying.

My only minor criticism is how America centric the book is. There are some references to developments in other parts of the world, but these are limited to giving some context.
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