Tim Wu’s The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires is as fascinating, wide-ranging, and, ultimately, inspiring book about communications policy and the information industries as you could hope to find. This is, of course, no surprise: Wu is one of America’s great information policy scholars and communicators, probably best known for coining the term “Net Neutrality”
Wu’s great strength is in the breadth of his scholarship and in his ability to use humor, clear language, and innovative arguments to connect diverse ideas. Thus in Master Switch, we have a brilliant explanation and history of what Wu calls “the Cycle,” through which information industries rise, consolidate, monopolize, capture governments, force out competitors, and, eventually, fragment into something less grandiose, less perfect, but more vibrant, open, and innovative.
Wu connects the industrial and informational monopolies of AT&T, the film trust, the exhibitors monopoly, the radio monopoly, the fight over FM, the censorship of the Hays Code for film-makers, the liberation of the Hayes Code for operating modems, the dashed hopes for a diverse and vibrant cable TV landscape, and, ultimately, the invention of the Internet. On the way, he makes a convincing case that information industries are different — the basis for every political revolution, every genocide, a “claim that can’t be made of orange juice, heating oil, running shoes, or dozens of other industries.”
The uniqueness of communications as an industry means that regulation and markets fail more often around them, and that the failures are worse. In response to this, Wu builds the case for a set of principles around information industry ownership, concentration, and structure, and proposes that these be regulated largely by an “information morality” — not by a single regulatory agency or a single statute book, but ultimately by an emergent consensus about the value of information freedom as a vital substrate for free speech and free societies.
Tim has done rather a lot to this end already, simply by coining the idea of “Net Neutrality” — an elegant restatement of the End-to-End Principle, couched in terms that laypeople can understand. One of my favorite interactions with corporate flacks in recent years was a phone call I had with a PR guy at Virgin Media, the UK cable operator whose CEO publicly declared war on Net Neutrality and promised that customers like me would be bought and sold like commodities by our ISPs and “content providers. The flack tried to obfuscate the question (a reliable PR trick) by saying that Net Neutrality was an ambiguous term that no one could agree upon. I was delighted to be able to tell this gentlemen than the term had been coined by someone I’d known since I was nine years old, that it was short and sweet, and was well-understood as a term of art among the still-living creators of the Internet, the Web, and TCP/IP, and to offer to give him their email addresses if he needed it explained to him.
In Master Switch, Tim gives us a glimpse into his vast and broad knowledge of communications policy and its history, the groundwork that gave rise to his ideas, and presents an inspiring path to a better world of better networks (even as he shows the risks of not taking such a path). He makes the convincing case that the Net is different, that its stakes are higher than any communications battle in memory, though the form of the battle is a familiar one.
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.
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