According to Columbia professor and policy advocate Wu (Who Controls the Internet), the great information empires of the 20th century have followed a clear and distinctive pattern: after the chaos that follows a major technological innovation, a corporate power intervenes and centralizes control of the new medium--the “master switch.” Wu chronicles the turning points of the century’s information landscape: those decisive moments when a medium opens or closes, from the development of radio to the Internet revolution, where centralizing control could have devastating consequences. To Wu, subjecting the information economy to the traditional methods of dealing with concentrations of industrial power is an unacceptable control of our most essential resource. He advocates “not a regulatory approach but rather a constitutional approach” that would enforce distance between the major functions in the information economy--those who develop information, those who own the network infrastructure on which it travels, and those who control the venues of access--and keep corporate and governmental power in check. By fighting vertical integration, a “Separations Principle” would remove the temptations and vulnerabilities to which such entities are prone. Wu’s engaging narrative and remarkable historical detail make this a compelling and galvanizing cry for sanity--and necessary deregulation--in the information age. (Nov.)
In this eye-opening business history, Wu (Columbia Law Sch.) examines the evolution of media industries, such as film, radio, cable, telephone, and information, with Apple, AT&T, and Google among the major companies discussed. Readers will recognize that current events impacting the information environment are eerily reminiscent of past ones, especially plans affecting the open and free Internet infrastructure. Wu is an exemplary writer because he is able to draw readers into his stories with engaging details. He also here provides an economic analysis of the cyclical nature of the organization and size of firms. Relying on economic theories, Wu advises against government involvement, because it will only interfere with marketplace events. VERDICT Readers should be knowledgeable about the theories of important economists, such as Joseph Schumpeter, and have an economic background in the characteristics of corporate structures, such as monopolies and oligopolies, to make the best use of this book. Recommended for fans of Wu's Who Controls the Internet? and for those interested in the media infrastructure.—Caroline Geck, Newark Public Schs., NJ
Powerful forces are afoot to take control of the Internet—for profit, of course. It's happened before, writes Slate contributor Wu (Copyright and Communications/Columbia Univ.; co-author: Who Controls the Internet?, 2006), and the corporations have won just about every time.
Take Alexander Graham Bell, for instance, "a professor and an amateur inventor, with little taste for business." More at home in the lab than the boardroom, Bell had backers who knew their corporate chicanery, such that the telephone, the child of many fathers, was soon in the hands of a monopoly, AT&T, that endured for more than a century. In the spirit of Schumpeterian "creative destruction," one of those investors, who had a bone to pick with the telegraph company—another monopoly—saw the telephone as a means to kill the earlier technology, and so it was. Radio, too, emerged from many inventors, another example of the simultaneity of innovation. In the 1920s, writes Wu, radio "was a two-way medium accessible to almost any hobbyist," and private individuals and small businesses alike started radio stations as quickly as they set up blogs today. Trying to get a radio license today is a matter of considerable cost and bureaucratic negotiation, and of course it is illegal to broadcast without that license—another win for the corporations, which use these gatekeeping mechanisms to keep competition out. Examining one communication technology after another, Wu, coiner of the term "net neutrality," artfully charts a single story in which economic power consistently trumps public good, with the Google of today being the latest "master switch" that channels communication. Given that Google has recently been in negotiations with Verizon to take a public utility—the Internet—ever more tightly into private hands, that story is timely.
Eye-opening reading, with implications for just about anyone who uses that utility, which means just about everyone.
…an intellectually ambitious history of modern communications…The story covers the history of phones, radio, television, movies and, finally, the Internet.
The New York Times
“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)