Sunday, 10 March 2013

Bibliophilia: The Master Switch by Tim Wu

The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires – Tim Wu

Compelling look into something I hadn’t thought about much - information empires. He chronicles the trajectory of every such entity - telegraph, telephone, film, radio, television, cable, and now of course, the internet. Every one of these started out as a disruptive technology, fomented by amateurs and heralding all sorts of idealistic promise. Open architecture, open to anyone with innovative ideas. But in every case, it didn’t take long before they were controlled by monopolistic forces. Things move in cycles. Hobby medium expounded by utopian visionaries, eventual domination by successful players/those who could convince government legislators to give them the reins, government decades down the path cutting off the corporate behemoths at the knees, eventual re-domination of the market by clever maneuvering. What I found interesting is how much collusion there was between industry and government. Besides the groundbreaking Bell Labs, RCA was in the governments good graces because of the strategic military and diplomatic value of their research into radios and communication technologies. Another aspect I found interesting is how several of these oligarchs saw their dominance over the market as a sacred trust. They regarded their role as that of benevolent dictators, with a duty to their customers/constituents. But of course there is an inherent conflict of interest in being both the controller of the medium and the message. Disseminating information and creating information tends to trip over one another. Another recurring theme is the outright suppression of superior (disruptive) technology by the by then entrenched interests. FM radio was stifled for decades by the people who didn’t want to see their interests in AM radio supplanted. Television could have been a reality long before it became one if radio and film barons hadn’t squashed it for so long.

Technology books can be really dry, but this is a very readable history not only of the history of technology, but also of corporations, and even societal development. But overall I think his historical research is more in depth than his conclusions on how to prevent the same fate befalling the medium you are reading this review on. I wish he has spent some more time discussing how to prevent the internet from becoming a closed and tightly controlled industry like all the others before it.

I suspect I will read this one again before the year is out.

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