on 26 December 2010
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. However but this might make it all the most interesting to a British reader as the featured corporations and characters are less familiar so there is a greater sense of learning something new.
If you want to participant in the debate about the future of the internet with informed credibility this is the book for you. It is not easy reading but worth the effort - thought provoking, educational and entertaining. What more could you ask of a book?
on 11 April 2011
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?
The book concludes by looking at the internet, seeing how it too is a disruptive technology which threatens the strangle hold of the ancien regime, and suggests that the vested interests of the old world threaten even now to subsume this new medium (given that it is now too late to suppress it!).
The theory is remarkably persuasive as it is backed up with so many historical examples and raises many troubling and thought-provoking questions.
So, if you are reading this review on Amazon, you are probably interested in the internet enough to be directly affected by the ideas in this book. Stop reading this review and buy it!
on 24 February 2011
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.
on 21 September 2014
Subtitled 'The Rise and Fall of Information Empires' Tim Wu's book is a tour de force history of the four great information technologies of the 20th Century - the telephone, radio/television, movies, and the internet. The book is both a history and an analysis of these industries. The lessons we can draw from the stories he tells have serious implications for the current struggle over what is now known as 'net neutrality.
The individual stories of the technologies themselves are interesting enough in their own right, but what is striking is the common themes of the histories of the telephone, radio and movies. In each case as the new disruptive technologies came into existence and there was a period of free for all, anarchy if you like, in which innovators thrived, anyone could join in, and the cost of entry was minimal.
Then came a period of consolidation, often assisted by government desire to regulate and consolidate. Politicians are notoriously wary of their constituents doing this for themselves, while the bureaucrats who run the regulatory bodies always push for consolidation. After all it's a lot easier to talk to, and come to agreement with, a few large bodies that have a similar culture, than hundreds of small organization filled with fractious non-conformists!
And of course, once you have a monopoly or semi-monopoly situation, it becomes easier to suppress new, disruptive, innovations - the suppression of FM radio in the early 30s by RCA being a classic case. In other cases the leadership of the monopoly involved simply could not conceive of any way of working other than the one currently in use. Thus the officials at AT&T thought the concept of packet switched networks (the basis of the internet) was "preposterous". In fact, so wedded were the AT&T officials to the circuit based network (the AT&T slogan was One company, One system, Universal Service), that they even turned down a US Air Force offer to pay for an experimental packet switched network!
But this isn't just a technical history. It's also a social history of the struggle to keep those technologies in the hands of ordinary people, and that is as important as the technical issues, because that is exactly what is happening now in both the internet and the software forums. In the internet the struggle is being waged under the rubric of 'net neutrality, while the software struggle is being waged through patent reform.
Both are important. At the moment anyone can post material onto the net - you don't require anyone's permission to do so, or to check what you've written before it's posted. Anyone can write software - all you need is a general purpose computer, usually a desktop PC, and a compiler or a browser, depending on your language of choice. Do I really have to tell you that the politicians and big business would prefer it otherwise?
We are on a cusp when it comes to questions of how the new and currently cheap enabling technologies of computing and the internet will be used in the future, and Tim Wu's readable and fascinating book is an important chronology and analysis of what happened on previous occasions. We need to understand that and learn its lessons, because those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
on 16 November 2013
In The Master Switch, Tim Wu draws on Schumpeterian theory of creative destruction and Christensen's notion of disruptive innovations to examine the rise and fall of information empires. He makes the argument that various forms of information industries - the telegraph, the telephone, movie-making, radio, and television have been subject to what he terms the `Cycle', wherein a disruptive new technology challenges an established hegemonic order, as with telephone confronting the wireless, slowly replacing it and itself becoming hegemonic. Over time, dozens or hundreds of new disruptive players jostle for market position moving quite rapidly to a single monopoly player or cartel that dominates the landscape. Eventually this monopoly player or cartel is challenged by a new disruption and is toppled, or resists by using the power of the state to stifle what is an inevitable change. Providing a detailed genealogy of the industries already listed, and how they were initiated and developed through various power struggles and were eventually toppled or mutated, Wu asks whether the present period of disruption through internet technologies will follow the same Cycle pattern and become dominated by a handful of players who control the `master switch', or will it be different given net neutrality and the global rather than national scale of operations? He discusses this by counter-posing Apple with Google, who have very different business models, with the former seeking to replicate the Cycle. The analysis is compellingly presented through a very engaging and accessible narrative. I have two critiques. The first is that the story told is highly American-centric and whilst his model of the `Cycle' works in the US, it is not clear how applicable it is with respect to different contexts. The second is that, the conclusion is a little ambiguous as to whether the Cycle will be repeated or resisted in the present age. Otherwise, this is an excellent read.
on 2 November 2014
This is an interesting book as it cuts to the core of innovation. To create a new service in many occasions this means building it the face of opposition of the old. At times this might entail a co-operation as the services exist in parallel or at other times it becomes an existential struggle which effects the course of a nation. This was explored in the early battle between the telegraph and telephone (Western Union vs Bell) as well as the legal battles that marked the migration of cinematic talent from New York to Hollywood.
The author opines that current near ruleless content of the internet will be tamed by state regulation and industry to better serve their interests rather than the public. This new area of closure would thus end the era of innovation which the Internet had heretofore heralded
As this book is a well written combination of law, history and technology: recommended.
on 4 February 2014
Bought The Master Switch on audiobook CD. I've had a few goes of Audible but found the DRM and player annoying. Wanted a way to listen to audiobooks in my own way. The audiobook is from Brilliance Audio and the narration is exactly the same as Audible, most of Brilliance Audios audiobooks are exactly the same except for the bit at the start that says 'this is Audible', instead this says 'Brilliance Audio presents...', other than that it's the exact same product.
This came in a great case, brand new and sealed and within a few days of ordering. I may have to special order some more stuff if they'll allow me, I'm loving my new found freedom with audiobooks.
on 19 February 2011
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.
on 8 September 2015
A book on this topic surely doesn't deserve to be as a good a read as this one. I'll admit - I work in telecoms, but this was almost a page-turner. So where are the rest of Tim Wu's books? He only appears to have co-written one other book and I'm sure there are other things he could turn his attention to.
on 25 January 2014
well written review of information as a commodity and how industries form and change around them. some interesting points on innovation that i had not understood before but can now see happening with the current 'giants' of information after reading about the examples in this book.