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The Master Switch

The Rise and Fall of Information Empires
Wu, Tim (Book - 2010 )
Average Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5.
The Master Switch


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In this age of an open Internet, it is easy to forget that every American information industry, beginning with the telephone, has eventually been taken captive by some ruthless monopoly or cartel. With all our media now traveling a single network, an unprecedented potential is building for centralized control over what Americans see and hear. Could history repeat itself with the next industrial consolidation? Could the Internet--the entire flow of American information--come to be ruled by one corporate leviathan in possession of "the master switch"? That is the big question of Tim Wu's pathbreaking book. As Wu's sweeping history shows, each of the new media of the twentieth century--radio, telephone, television, and film--was born free and open. Each invited unrestricted use and enterprising experiment until some would-be mogul battled his way to total domination. Here are stories of an uncommon will to power, the power over information: Adolph Zukor, who took a technology once used as commonly as YouTube is today and made it the exclusive prerogative of a kingdom called Hollywood . . . NBC's founder, David Sarnoff, who, to save his broadcast empire from disruptive visionaries, bullied one inventor (of electronic television) into alcoholic despair and another (this one of FM radio, and his boyhood friend) into suicide . . . And foremost, Theodore Vail, founder of the Bell System, the greatest information empire of all time, and a capitalist whose faith in Soviet-style central planning set the course of every information industry thereafter. Explaining how invention begets industry and industry begets empire--a progress often blessed by government, typically with stifling consequences for free expression and technical innovation alike--Wu identifies a time-honored pattern in the maneuvers of today's great information powers: Apple, Google, and an eerily resurgent AT&T. A battle royal looms for the Internet's future, and with almost every aspect of our lives now dependent on that network, this is one war we dare not tune out. Part industrial exposé, part meditation on what freedom requires in the information age, The Master Switch is a stirring illumination of a drama that has played out over decades in the shadows of our national life and now culminates with terrifying implications for our future.
Authors: Wu, Tim
Title: The master switch
the rise and fall of information empires
Publisher: New York :, Alfred A. Knopf,, 2010.
Edition: 1st ed.
Characteristics: x, 366 p. :,ill. ;,25 cm.
Contents: The disruptive founder
Radio dreams
Mr. Vail is a big man
The time is not ripe for feature films
Centralize all radio activities
The paramount ideal
The foreign attachment
The legion of decency
FM radio
We now add sight to sound
The right kind of breakup
The radicalism of the Internet revolution
Nixon's cable
Broken bell
Esperanto for machines
Turner does television
Mass production of the spirit
The return of AT&T
A surprising wreck
Father and son
The separations principle.
Local Note: 1
ISBN: 9780307269935
0307269930
Branch Call Number: 384.014 WU
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Report This Dec 17, 2013
  • StarGladiator rated this: 5 stars out of 5.

This is one of those must-read books, where crucial historical facts are mentioned; rarely read by most people. The important aspects which led to the creation of the Internet/Web of today. How incredible advances were buried at Bell Labs thanks to the godawful stupidity of corporate management at AT&T, and the original financing of that company by JP Morgan (a little know, and often ignored fact, although later in the early 1900s it appears to have become a Rockefeller trust --- not included in this excellent book). And how Sarnoff of RCA fame stole not only the TV from Phil Farnsworth, but FM radio from Edwin Armstrong --- a great read! (While reading Tim Wu's outstanding book, at the same time or concurrently one should read "Laser" by Nick Taylor - - the attitude towards both Bell Labs, and the anti-progress march of capitalism, will be greatly enhanced by reading these books together!) [Interesting financial aside: AT&T, Apple and Intel are Rockefeller companies.]

Report This Mar 16, 2012
  • danielestes rated this: 4 stars out of 5.

The Master Switch by Tim Wu is a fascinating study of the contradictory cycles of information and communication corporations, from creation to their eventual diminishing. The main subject for most of the book is AT&T, which began quite modestly in the laboratory of Alexander Graham Bell and over time grew to ruthlessly dominate the industry it created. In addition to the phone, this book takes us on a tour of the 20th century through the invention and developments of radio, film and television. And ultimately, the internet. In many ways the internet is changing (and challenging) the old information empires more drastically than those mediums before it, but it's still too soon to tell what the full historical impact will be. Wu also proposes a solution to limit the monopolist's inherent need to sabotage the upcoming research and development that threaten their company's power. He describes a kind of constitutional separation of powers, only in this case for businesses. This isn't light reading, but I recommend this book because it's important to understand some of the darker nature of the information industries that surround us in the 21st century.

Finding patterns in the fates of information empires.

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