The Master Switch: The popular Rise discount and Fall of Information Empires online

The Master Switch: The popular Rise discount and Fall of Information Empires online

The Master Switch: The popular Rise discount and Fall of Information Empires online
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New Yorker and Fortune Best Book of the Year

"A must-read for all Americans who want to remain the ones deciding what they can read, watch, and listen to.” —Arianna Huffington

Analyzing the strategic maneuvers of today’s great information powers—Apple, Google, and an eerily resurgent AT&T—Tim Wu uncovers a time-honored pattern in which invention begets industry and industry begets empire. 

It is easy to forget that every development in the history of the American information industry—from the telephone to radio to film—once existed in an open and chaotic marketplace inhabited by entrepreneurs and utopians, just as the Internet does today. Each of these, however, grew to be dominated by a monopolist or cartel.

In this pathbreaking book, Tim Wu asks: will the Internet follow the same fate? Could the Web—the entire flow of American information—come to be ruled by a corporate leviathan in possession of "the master switch"? Here, Tim Wu shows how a battle royale for the Internet’s future is brewing, and this is one war we dare not tune out.

Review

“Brilliant.” —Forbes

“Thought-provoking. . . . An intellectually ambitious history of modern communications.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Fascinating, balanced, and rigorous—a tour de force.” —The New York Review of Books
 
“Entertaining. . . . There’s a sharp insight and a surprising fact on nearly every page of Wu’s masterful survey.” —The Boston Globe

“Unexpectedly fascinating. . . . A substantial and well-written account of the five major communications industries that have shaped the world as we know it: telephony, radio, movies, television and the Internet. . . . The economy and common sense of The Master Switch . . . makes it valuable to the non-wonk wondering how we got where we are today, and where we might be headed next.” —Salon
 
“Engaging. . . . Wu presents a powerful case. . . . His scholarly command of the past century of communications innovation is prodigious.” —The Plain Dealer
 
“My pick for economics book of the year.” —Ezra Klein, The Washington Post
 
“An explosive history that makes it clear how the information business became what it is today. Important reading.” —Chris Anderson, author of The Long Tail and Free, and editor of Wired magazine
 
“A brilliant explanation and history. . . . As fascinating, wide-ranging, and, ultimately, inspiring book about communications policy and the information industries as you could hope to find. . . . Wu is that rare animal, an accomplished scholar who can write about complex ideas in ways that are accessible to all. And the ideas he’s covering are as important as any in our ideological marketplace today.” —Cory Doctorow, Boing Boing
 
“Groundbreaking. . . . Offers powerful lessons from the past for the future of the Internet.” —Nature
 
“Original, insightful. . . . Wu provides a compelling reminder of the monopolist instincts of communications and media companies.” —The Washington Monthly
 
“Masterful. . . . Eminently readable. . . . A superstar in the telecommunications world . . . Wu has a way of presenting complex and important concepts in a clear and understandable way.” —Art Brodsky, The Huffington Post
 
“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
 
“Wu’s work is a must read for those who want to know about the future of the Internet. The Master Switch is brilliant, with a distinctive voice that comes through on every page.” —Josh Silverman, CEO, Skype
 
“As a history lesson for anyone interested in how innovations move from inventors’ garages and laboratories to our living rooms, The Master Switch is a good read, but it is its relevance to the evolution of the Internet that makes it an important book.” —Times Higher Education Supplement
 
“Trenchant and provocative. . . . In vivid and often depressing detail, Wu describes how the true inventors and innovators of information technology have been destroyed by their self-aggrandizing counterparts in the executive offices.” —Toronto Star
 
“A free and open Internet is not a given. Indeed, corporate interests are working feverishly to seize control of it. Drawing on history, Wu shows how this could easily happen and why we are at risk of losing the freedom we now take for granted. A must-read for all Americans who want to remain the ones deciding what they can read, watch, and listen to.” —Arianna Huffington
 
“An ambitious history of the communications industries in the 20th century. . . . [Full of] great stories, and Wu tells them expertly.” —The Guardian (London)
 
The Master Switch is a provocative thesis on where the Internet has come from and where it is headed. It will interest technology enthusiasts and all who value a vibrant media market.” —The Futurist
 
“Wu’s engaging narrative and remarkable historical detail make this a compelling and galvanizing cry for sanity . . . in the information age.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

About the Author

Tim Wu is an author, policy advocate and professor at Columbia University, currently serving as Senior Advisor to the United States Federal Trade Commission.  In 2006, he was recognized as one of fifty leaders in science and technology by Scientific American magazine, and in the following year, 01238 magazine listed him as one of Harvard’s one hundred most influential graduates. He writes for Slate, where he won the Lowell Thomas gold medal for travel journalism, and he has contributed to The New Yorker, Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Forbes.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapter 1

Exactly forty years before Bell''s National Geographic banquet, Alexander Bell was in his laboratory in the attic of a machine shop in Boston, trying once more to coax a voice out of a wire. His efforts had proved mostly futile, and the Bell Company was little more than a typically hopeless start-up.

Bell was a professor and an amateur inventor, with little taste for business: his expertise and his day job was teaching the deaf. His main investor and the president of the Bell Company was Gardiner Green Hubbard, a patent attorney and prominent critic of the telegraph monopoly Western Union. It is Hubbard who was responsible for Bell''s most valuable asset: its telephone patent, filed even before Bell had a working prototype. Besides Hubbard, the company had one employee, Bell''s assistant, Thomas Watson. That was it.

If the banquet revealed Bell on the cusp of monopoly, here is the opposite extreme from which it began: a stirring image of Bell and Watson toiling in their small attic laboratory. It is here that the Cycle begins: in a lonely room where one or two men are trying to solve a concrete problem. So many revolutionary innovations start small, with outsiders, amateurs, and idealists in attics or garages. This motif of Bell and Watson alone will reappear throughout this account, at the origins of radio, television, the personal computer, cable, and companies like Google and Apple. The importance of these moments makes it critical to understand the stories of lone inventors.

Over the twentieth century, most innovation theorists and historians became somewhat skeptical of the importance of creation stories like Bell''s. These thinkers came to believe the archetype of the heroic inventor had been over-credited in the search for a compelling narrative. As William Fisher puts it, "Like the romantic ideal of authorship, the image of the inventor has proved distressingly durable." These critics undeniably have a point: even the most startling inventions are usually arrived at, simultaneously, by two or more people. If that''s true, how singular could the genius of the inventor really be?

There could not be a better example than the story of the telephone itself. On the very day that Alexander Bell was registering his invention, another man, Elisha Gray, was also at the patent office filing for the very same breakthrough.* The coincidence takes some of the luster off Bell''s "eureka." And the more you examine the history, the worse it looks. In 1861, sixteen years before Bell, a German man named Johann Philip Reis presented a primitive telephone to the Physical Society of Frankfurt, claiming that "with the help of the galvanic current, [the inventor] is able to reproduce at a distance the tones of instruments and even, to a certain degree, the human voice." Germany has long considered Reis the telephone''s inventor. Another man, a small-town Pennsylvania electrician named Daniel Drawbaugh, later claimed that by 1869 he had a working telephone in his house. He produced prototypes and seventy witnesses who testified that they had seen or heard his invention at that time. In litigation before the Supreme Court in 1888, three Justices concluded that "overwhelming evidence" proved that "Drawbaugh produced and exhibited in his shop, as early as 1869, an electrical instrument by which he transmitted speech. . . ."

There was, it is fair to say, no single inventor of the telephone. And this reality suggests that what we call invention, while not easy, is simply what happens once a technology''s development reaches the point where the next step becomes available to many people. By Bell''s time, others had invented wires and the telegraph, had discovered electricity and the basic principles of acoustics. It lay to Bell to assemble the pieces: no mean feat, but not a superhuman one. In this sense, inventors are often more like craftsmen than miracle workers.

Indeed, the history of science is full of examples of what the writer Malcolm Gladwell terms "simultaneous discovery"-so full that the phenomenon represents the norm rather than the exception. Few today know the name Alfred Russel Wallace, yet he wrote an article proposing the theory of natural selection in 1858, a year before Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species. Leibnitz and Newton developed calculus simultaneously. And in 1610 four others made the same lunar observations as Galileo.

Is the loner and outsider inventor, then, merely a figment of so much hype, with no particular significance? No, I would argue his significance is enormous; but not for the reasons usually imagined. The inventors we remember are significant not so much as inventors, but as founders of "disruptive" industries, ones that shake up the technological status quo. Through circumstance or luck, they are exactly at the right distance both to imagine the future and to create an independent industry to exploit it.

Let''s focus, first, on the act of invention. The importance of the outsider here owes to his being at the right remove from the prevailing currents of thought about the problem at hand. That distance affords a perspective close enough to understand the problem, yet far enough for greater freedom of thought, freedom from, as it were, the cognitive distortion of what is as opposed to what could be. This innovative distance explains why so many of those who turn an industry upside down are outsiders, even outcasts.

To understand this point we need grasp the difference between two types of innovation: "sustaining" and "disruptive," the distinction best described by innovation theorist Clayton Christensen. Sustaining innovations are improvements that make the product better, but do not threaten its market. The disruptive innovation, conversely, threatens to displace a product altogether. It is the difference between the electric typewriter, which improved on the typewriter, and the word processor, which supplanted it.

Another advantage of the outside inventor is less a matter of the imagination than of his being a disinterested party. Distance creates a freedom to develop inventions that might challenge or even destroy the business model of the dominant industry. The outsider is often the only one who can afford to scuttle a perfectly sound ship, to propose an industry that might challenge the business establishment or suggest a whole new business model. Those closer to-often at the trough of- existing industries face a remarkably constant pressure not to invent things that will ruin their employer. The outsider has nothing to lose.

But to be clear, it is not mere distance, but the right distance that matters; there is such a thing as being too far away. It may be that Daniel Drawbaugh actually did invent the telephone seven years before Bell. We may never know; but even if he did, it doesn''t really matter, because he didn''t do anything with it. He was doomed to remain an inventor, not a founder, for he was just too far away from the action to found a disruptive industry. In this sense, Bell''s alliance with Hubbard, a sworn enemy of Western Union, the dominant monopolist, was all-important. For it was Hubbard who made Bell''s invention into an effort to unseat Western Union.

I am not saying, by any means, that invention is solely the province of loners and that everyone else''s inspiration is suppressed. But this isn''t a book about better mousetraps. The Cycle is powered by disruptive innovations that upend once thriving industries, bankrupt the dominant powers, and change the world. Such innovations are exceedingly rare, but they are what makes the Cycle go.

Let''s return to Bell in his Boston laboratory. Doubtless he had some critical assets, including a knowledge of acoustics. His laboratory notebook, which can be read online, suggests a certain diligence. But his greatest advantage was neither of these. It was that everyone else was obsessed with trying to improve the telegraph. By the 1870s inventors and investors understood that there could be such a thing as a telephone, but it seemed a far-off, impractical thing. Serious men knew that what really mattered was better telegraph technology. Inventors were racing to build the "musical telegraph," a device that could send multiple messages over a single line at the same time. The other holy grail was a device for printing telegrams at home.

Bell was not immune to the seduction of these goals. One must start somewhere, and he, too, began his experiments in search of a better telegraph; certainly that''s what his backers thought they were paying for. Gardiner Hubbard, his primary investor, was initially skeptical of Bell''s work on the telephone. It "could never be more than a scientific toy," Hubbard told him. "You had better throw that idea out of your mind and go ahead with your musical telegraph, which if it is successful will make you a millionaire."

But when the time came, Hubbard saw the potential in the telephone to destroy his personal enemy, the telegraph company. In contrast, Elisha Gray, Bell''s rival, was forced to keep his telephone research secret from his principal funder, Samuel S. White. In fact, without White''s opposition, there is good reason to think that Gray would have both created a working telephone and patented it long before Bell.

The initial inability of Hubbard, White, and everyone else to recognize the promise of the telephone represents a pattern that recurs with a frequency embarrassing to the human race. "All knowledge and habit once acquired," wrote Joseph Schumpeter, the great innovation theorist, "becomes as firmly rooted in ourselves as a railway embankment in the earth." Schumpeter believed that our minds were, essentially, too lazy to seek out new lines of thought when old ones could serve. "The very nature of fixed habits of thinking, their energy-saving function, is founded upon the fact that they have become subconscious, that they yield their results automatically and are proof against criticism and even against contradiction by individual facts."

The men dreaming of a better telegraph were, one might say, mentally warped by the tangible demand for a better telegraph. The demand for a telephone, meanwhile, was purely notional. Nothing, save the hangman''s noose, concentrates the mind like piles of cash, and the obvious rewards awaiting any telegraph improver were a distraction for anyone even inclined to think about telephony, a fact that actually helped Bell. For him the thrill of the new was unbeatably compelling, and Bell knew that in his lab he was closing in on something miraculous. He, nearly alone in the world, was playing with magical powers never seen before.

On March 10, 1876, Bell, for the first time, managed to transmit speech over some distance. Having spilled acid on himself, he cried out into his telephone device, "Watson, come here, I want you." When he realized it had worked, he screamed in delight, did an Indian war dance, and shouted, again over the telephone, "God save the Queen!" The Plot to Destroy Bell Eight months on, late on the night of the 1876 presidential election, a man named John Reid was racing from the New York Times offices to the Republican campaign headquarters on Fifth Avenue. In his hand he held a Western Union telegram with the potential to decide who would be the next president of the United States.


The Plot To Destroy Bell

Eight months on, late on the noght of 1876 presidential election, a man named John Reid was racing from the New York Times offies to the Republican campaign headquarters on Fifth Avenue. In his hand he held a Western Union telegram with the potential to decide who would be the next president of the United States.

While Bell was trying to work the bugs out of his telephone, Western Union, telephony''s first and most dangerous (though for the moment unwitting) rival, had, they reckoned, a much bigger fish to fry: making their man president of the United States. Here we introduce the nation''s first great communications monopolist, whose reign provides history''s first lesson in the power and peril of concentrated control over the flow of information. Western Union''s man was one Rutherford B. Hayes, an obscure Ohio politician described by a contemporary journalist as "a third rate nonentity." But the firm and its partner newswire, the Associated Press, wanted Hayes in office, for several reasons. Hayes was a close friend of William Henry Smith, a former politician who was now the key political operator at the Associated Press. More generally, since the Civil War, the Republican Party and the telegraph industry had enjoyed a special relationship, in part because much of what were eventually Western Union''s lines were built by the Union army.

So making Hayes president was the goal, but how was the telegram in Reid''s hand key to achieving it?

The media and communications industries are regularly accused of trying to influence politics, but what went on in the 1870s was of a wholly different order from anything we could imagine today. At the time, Western Union was the exclusive owner of the only nationwide telegraph network, and the sizable Associated Press was the unique source for "instant" national or European news. (Its later competitor, the United Press, which would be founded on the U.S. Post Office''s new telegraph lines, did not yet exist.) The Associated Press took advantage of its economies of scale to produce millions of lines of copy a year and, apart from local news, its product was the mainstay of many American newspapers.

With the common law notion of "common carriage" deemed inapplicable, and the latter-day concept of "net neutrality" not yet imagined, Western Union carried Associated Press reports exclusively.10 Working closely with the Republican Party and avowedly Republican papers like The New York Times (the ideal of an unbiased press would not be established for some time, and the minting of the Times''s liberal bona fides would take longer still), they did what they could to throw the election to Hayes. It was easy: the AP ran story after story about what an honest man Hayes was, what a good governor he had been, or just whatever he happened to be doing that day. It omitted any scandals related to Hayes, and it declined to run positive stories about his rivals (James Blaine in the primary, Samuel Tilden in the general). But beyond routine favoritism, late that Election Day Western Union offered the Hayes campaign a secret weapon that would come to light only much later.

Hayes, far from being the front-runner, had gained the Republican nomination only on the seventh ballot. But as the polls closed his persistence appeared a waste of time, for Tilden, the Democrat, held a clear advantage in the popular vote (by a margin of over 250,000) and seemed headed for victory according to most early returns; by some accounts Hayes privately conceded defeat. But late that night, Reid, the New York Times editor, alerted the Republican Party that the Democrats, despite extensive intimidation of Republican supporters, remained unsure of their victory in the South. The GOP sent some telegrams of its own to the Republican governors in the South with special instructions for manipulating state electoral commissions. As a result the Hayes campaign abruptly claimed victory, resulting in an electoral dispute that would make Bush v. Gore seem a garden party. After a few brutal months, the Democrats relented, allowing Hayes the presidency-in exchange, most historians believe, for the removal of federal troops from the South, effectively ending Reconstruction.

The full history of the 1876 election is complex, and the power of the Western Union network was just one factor, to be sure. But while mostly studied by historians and political scientists, the dispute should also be taken as a crucial parable for communications policy makers. More than anything, it showed what kind of political advantage a discriminatory network can confer. When the major channels for moving information are loyal to one party, its effects, while often invisible, can be profound.

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4.5 out of 54.5 out of 5
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Top reviews from the United States

JD
3.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Somewhat Disappointed
Reviewed in the United States 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... See more
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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George Beard
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Master Switch is highly credible, far above incredible books
Reviewed in the United States on June 17, 2021
Aided by research assistants and reviewers at Columbia Law School, the new America foundation, the University of Washington, the Stanford Communications Department, the West Virginia School of Law, and the Institute of International and European affairs in Dublin, Tim Wo... See more
Aided by research assistants and reviewers at Columbia Law School, the new America foundation, the University of Washington, the Stanford Communications Department, the West Virginia School of Law, and the Institute of International and European affairs in Dublin, Tim Wo has beautifully revealed what moguls have done with the work of hapless inventors of the telegraph, telephone, FM radio, motion pictures and TV.

Wu points out that engineers within a company will not come up with disruptive new technology. That requires distance. However, Wu doesn''t mention the obvious, i.e. that, thanks to free Skype conferencing on the Internet, distance is no longer the restraint upon invention that it once was.

Wu then turns to the Internet and points out that "a network that everyone uses is worth fantastically more than the sum value of 100 networks with as many users collectively as the one great network... The network effect has only been heightened by the fact of global markets.

Wu closes by saying "... our insatiable demand for bandwidth – the new black gold – left us vulnerable. Let us, then, not fail to protect ourselves from the will of all who might seek domination of those resources we cannot do without."
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Rick Williams
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Don''t think the Internet is going to be this way forever...
Reviewed in the United States 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... See more
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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By Definition
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Awesome read leaves skidmarks on your brain!
Reviewed in the United States on July 3, 2011
Tim Wu''s book has streaked like a comet across my sky at the speed of light and left indelible skid marks on my brain! This is the most awesome read of the last ten years! It''s not only informative but massively entertaining, even electrifying. Wu''s predecessor,... See more
Tim Wu''s book has streaked like a comet across my sky at the speed of light and left indelible skid marks on my brain! This is the most awesome read of the last ten years! It''s not only informative but massively entertaining, even electrifying.

Wu''s predecessor, in my view, was the late Neil Postman (also from Columbia U.) who analyzed the history of communications as well with his book "Amusing Ourselves to Death" as well as other volumes.

Unlike Postman, however, Wu does not scorn communications technology but rather dissects the inner machinations of the politics and power struggles that bring it to market. The rich history of how television, movies, radio, the personal computer, and the telephone were invented, their modest beginnings, the early open-market convulsions that brought them to prominence, and their full, monopolistic flowering, are the substance of The Master Switch. Wu is very interested in the phase where invention meets commerce. And then what he calls "The Cycle" begins, and communications move from open to closed and then back again. He calls it "the rise and fall of information empires."

The history of the film studios, AT&T, and finally the epic conflict between Google and Apple all make for some of the most fascinating reading I have experienced in years. Every chapter and nearly every page is filled with marvelous insights on information industries and the political struggles that have taken place around new technologies. Even the struggles of the lowly answering machine and/or tape recorder make for a story worthy of Dostoeyevsky, as AT&T suppressed the technology of magnetic tape recording for years because they thought answering machines represented a threat to their telephone service. It took 50 yearsf for answering machines to be available to the public, thanks to the tunnelvision of AT&T.

Some of the areas and people Wu didn''t cover in detail include Bill Gates...perhaps because Bill Gates was only an "accidental" monopolist. Windows has always been a more or less open operating system -- it''s hardware and software platforms were available for many companies and individuals to exploit and adapt to their needs. Wu spoke of the duopoly of NBC and CBS, but said little of how this power influenced the content of the news. (another favorite subject of Postman, to be sure.) Media and communications technologies ARE different from other industries, but because they rule our perceptions of the world around us. In this, I think Wu slightly missed the mark.

Other adjectives to describe Tim "Whoa''s" book are "broad and deep". He compared the rise of broadcasting in America vs England, as radio development in GB was a more governmental affair, but in America, of course, one driven by commerce. He looks at how FM radio was supressed for decades by the dominant broadcasting powers. He examines the split between Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the former tending towards closed, controlled systems and Woz favoring an open platform in computers.

And always, Wu looks at the relationship between industrial titans and the government that regulates and/or conspires with them.

I loved Wu''s description of how each of the major studios was formed in it''s infancy. In a chapter called "The Time is Not Ripe for Features", he explores how the founding fathers of the West Coast movie industry flouted Edison''s East Coast, patent-driven monopoly and made the movies what they are today.

Wu examines how the economic and political structure of electronic communications has affected art and media, and vice versa.

The last chapter, The Separations Principle, is certainly the most pedantic and the hardest to read, but Wu reasons his arguments with cogent detail and brings the book to a strong conclusion.

Wu''s book is simply the last word on the the history of electronic communications, the men behind the control of it, and the politics and power struggles underlying it. In that these devices and industries are KEY in forming our perceptions of the world, I can hardly think of a more important book. This is my bible. I''ll be reading it 10 times and more. Thanks, Tim Wu.
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TrailMix
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Very Relevant
Reviewed in the United States 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... See more
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.
3 people found this helpful
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David Weinberger
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Fascinating history, provocative thesis
Reviewed in the United States on February 6, 2011
Those who read Tim Wu''s previous book, Who Controls the Internet?: Illusions of a Borderless World (with Jack Goldsmith), will not be surprised by the clarity and command of facts Wu exhibits in The Master Switch. I was very pleasantly surprised to find... See more
Those who read Tim Wu''s previous book, Who Controls the Internet?: Illusions of a Borderless World (with Jack Goldsmith), will not be surprised by the clarity and command of facts Wu exhibits in The Master Switch. I was very pleasantly surprised to find that he is also an able historian and story-teller. The Master Switch is a compelling read, fascinating in both its detail and its overall case. For this is not a mere history. Wu finds a pattern in how information industries have developed since the end of the 19th century in America, starting out as open to every amateur and quickly becoming consolidated into efficient monopolies. It is not a happy pattern for those of us who (like Woo himself) cherish the Internet as an open, raucous medium. This is especially the case since, as Wu argues, the earlier information monopolists often felt a sense of obligation to the public that the new ones do not.

Some of the histories Wu recounts will be more familiar, but some shed light on industry histories not often part of the telecommunications debate. For example, Wu''s narrative of the rise and consolidation of the motion picture industry was fresh and fascinating. In every case, the stories are well-told, fun to read, and illuminating.
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Vlad Buckets
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
A gripping history builds to a compelling warning
Reviewed in the United States 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... See more
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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Lee Dilley
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Fascinating historical perspective on generations of communications infrastructure starting with ...
Reviewed in the United States 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... See more
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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Alan Lenton
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Superb History of 20th Century Information Networks
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on September 21, 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...See more
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. Highly recommended.
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R. Parry
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Who will run the Internet and how?
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on December 26, 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...See more
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? Highly Recommended.
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Rob Kitchin
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
compelling analysis of the development of information industries
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on November 16, 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...See more
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.
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Dirk vom Lehn
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Very interesting book on recent media development
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on May 27, 2017
Excellent analysis of the development of the media. Tim Wu describes the development as ''the cycle'' and demonstrates its re-emergence over the decades with regard to different media. Wu refers to radio, newspapers, television, film, cable TV and the Internet. His discussion...See more
Excellent analysis of the development of the media. Tim Wu describes the development as ''the cycle'' and demonstrates its re-emergence over the decades with regard to different media. Wu refers to radio, newspapers, television, film, cable TV and the Internet. His discussion of the development of the film industry reminded me of Finola Kerrigan''s excellent book on ''Film Marketing''. I highly recommend this book.
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JayTe
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Excellent
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on December 11, 2018
It gave me considerable insight into how incumbent firms react when their market is threatened by a paradigm shifting technology. Something for those of us involved in these technologies to consider when building our own firms.
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The Master Switch: The popular Rise discount and Fall of Information Empires online

The Master Switch: The popular Rise discount and Fall of Information Empires online

The Master Switch: The popular Rise discount and Fall of Information Empires online

The Master Switch: The popular Rise discount and Fall of Information Empires online

The Master Switch: The popular Rise discount and Fall of Information Empires online

The Master Switch: The popular Rise discount and Fall of Information Empires online

The Master Switch: The popular Rise discount and Fall of Information Empires online

The Master Switch: The popular Rise discount and Fall of Information Empires online

The Master Switch: The popular Rise discount and Fall of Information Empires online

The Master Switch: The popular Rise discount and Fall of Information Empires online

The Master Switch: The popular Rise discount and Fall of Information Empires online

The Master Switch: The popular Rise discount and Fall of Information Empires online

The Master Switch: The popular Rise discount and Fall of Information Empires online

The Master Switch: The popular Rise discount and Fall of Information Empires online

The Master Switch: The popular Rise discount and Fall of Information Empires online

The Master Switch: The popular Rise discount and Fall of Information Empires online

The Master Switch: The popular Rise discount and Fall of Information Empires online