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The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires Paperback – 1 Jan 2012
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'Magisterial...Wu's sharp analysis and eye for a good story will impress any thoughtful legislator. If new media laws are to be made, this book will be a key document.' --Sunday Times
'An ambitious history of the communications industries in the 20th century... these are great stories, and Wu tells them expertly.' --Guardian
'Wu is the rare writer capable of exhuming history and also interpreting current affairs. In this profound and important book, he excels at both.'
At the heart of this fascinating book is one of the central questions of our age - rendered more urgent by recent events in the Arab world: is the internet a revolutionary innovation that will overthrow the established order... or will it turn out to have been an unruly technology, that will never escape the controlling embrace of corporations and governments? (Guardian)See all Product description
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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?
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!
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