review : the master switch - tim wu

This book wasn’t quite what I expected it to be. At this point, though, I am not sure what I was expecting when I started. Overall its a great read with a lot of interesting history which Wu puts to use in the last chapter as he observes the current and future state of the web.

The impacts of monopolies and oligopolies on the various information mediums was the core of the book. There is a lot of interesting and, to me, surprising accounts of the evolution of the telephony, radio, television, computing, and lastly the web. While I was aware of some of the history behind Bell from its inception to dis-assembly and, to some degree, its reconstitution. I was not aware of its grip on innovation. Certainly wielding its weight to limit the impact of competitors was a bit obvious, the fact that certain innovations made within the company were kept hidden as they presented a perceived threat to the business bottom line was unexpected. For example, a prototype answering machine using tape storage was working in 1934.

At the core of this is what Wu calls the ‘Cycle’ which is the oscillation of an industry to oscillate between being open, where all are free to participate, and closed, where the industry is tightly controlled by a few corporations. One example used is the movie industry that began with independent filmmakers, distributors, and movie houses, evolved to be tightly controlled by companies that oversaw the entire production to exhibition pipeline, and again found its way to a more open economy.

The web, Wu describes, is different from telephony, radio waves, and film that has enabled it to resist the Cycle for as long as it has. He credits a good bit of its resilience to the fundamental, distributed architecture on which it was built. However, with the rise of some of the web’s key players – such as Google and Comcast – there is a threat. Such companies represent a “master switch” that, if pulled, could change the face of the web in a moment.

Noting the threat to the openness of the web given recent concerns of net neutrality, Wu poses some interventions based on history of the Cycle in different industries to ensure the openness of the web remains intact.

Not expecting the history discussions I was a little taken aback by their richness and depth. In retrospect I found them very compelling but while reading found myself at times wanting them to wrap up. Had a read a more in-depth review of the book it might have become apparent. Knowing that now, I would have engaged the book in a different way.

For those that like to cut to the chase, the last chapter of the book is the place to go. It’s well written and can stand on its own. However, if you don’t read the rest of the book you probably won’t completely and fully appreciate the arguments. Plus, you will miss out on some fantastic tales.

Wu spoke at Harvard University in Jan 2011.

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