Sunday, March 6, 2011

Book Review: the Master Switch

Tim Wu's The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires is one of my favorite books of the past several years. It is a deeply insightful and ultimately important work, and should be on everyone's reading list, especially those in any part of the computing, communications or entertainment industry.

More on why I feel so strongly about it in a second, but first, since a picture is worth a thousand words:

I can't think of a book I've dog-eared this much since I was in school. There were a ton of points I wanted to mark and reference in future talks or articles.

In The Master Switch, Wu takes a look at the history of the telephone, film, radio, broadcast television, and cable television industries, to show how all of them exemplify The Cycle. The Cycle being that between an open period following the invention of a new information medium, and the closed period that follows as a few economic giants gain control over that medium. His presentation of these histories is as entertaining as it is educational, and I found myself glued to the page.

This is not strictly a historical text though. All of these case histories serve both to define the rules by which the cycle occurs, and also to warn of its costs to societies, and to innovation.

He then goes on to look at the last great information empire battle: The battle for the Internet. As Wu puts asks it, "Which is mightier: the radicalism of the Internet, or the inevitability of The Cycle?"

Those of us raised in recent times, and on the openness of the Internet and in the era of Google, Microsoft and Amazon, may take it for granted that the open horizontal platforms inevitably win. However, as Wu shows in the cycle, the vertically integrated conglomerates and the owners of infrastructure are remarkably resilient in their ability to tame those that would rock their boat. Also, he shows us that often enough, those that free prisoners from one market are soon tempted to forge chains of their own. Apple of course being a great example here.

If anything, the first line of defense this book offers us is education. An ability to recognize the elements of the cycle at work should be important for all of us. Secondly, Wu offers a prescription for a "constitutional solution". This is meant not in the sense that he'd have us modify the US constitution, but rather that a balance of powers could be struck between members, with sufficient but not over-reaching regulation from bodies such as the DOJ and FCC.

If there's one downside to the book - and it's a small one in an otherwise masterful work - its that the work is extremely US-centric. Some reference is made to Europe, and there is the occasional mention of PRC, but that's it. I would have thought it worth a lengthy discussion about how, for example, the entertainment industries are using international copyright treaties to entrench their favorite policies in foreign countries' laws, and then in turn to use that as precedent to influence US law.

This minor complaint aside, this is a must read work for our day and age.

No comments: