Review by Michael J. Faris, Penn State University

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The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires

Tim Wu
New York: Knopf, 2010: 366. Book


Master Switch

In The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires, Tim Wu explores what he calls “the Cycle” of industries trading in new information technologies. This cycle involves the development of new disruptive technologies; their transformation into centralized, closed information industries; and their subsequent fall due to newer technologies or government intervention. In engaging historical accounts, Wu narrates this cycle in order to provide historical context for the internet: How different is the internet from other information technologies, especially regarding openness and free speech?

Part I of the book describes the first stage: the development of new information technologies that disrupt cemented, often centralized industries. The second stage in the cycle, covered in Part II, is the centralization of new information industries, changing from open systems into closed, centralized ones that limit innovation, competition, and expression. In Part III, Wu illustrates how these monopolies disintegrated due to new disruptive technologies or due to government antitrust actions. But, as Wu explains in Part IV, these industries re-centralized in the last two decades of the twentieth century, reintegrating into giant media conglomerates

Wu’s examples—telephone, film, radio, and television—are instructive in explaining this cycle and pointing toward concerns over openness for the internet. Important in this account is the ability of monopolies and cartels to squelch competition, innovation, and open speech: AT&T pressured small, local competitors into closing, and the Radio Company of America (owner of NBC) stalled the development of the FM radio industry, for example. Additionally, the federal government’s role was very influential, assisting both AT&T and RCA in becoming and remaining monopolies, but also breaking up film’s vertical integration in 1948 and famously breaking up AT&T in an antitrust suit in 1984. However, despite these breakups, AT&T is once again a national powerhouse, and media conglomerates such as Time-Warner control media as diverse as radio, television, music, print, and film.

Which brings Wu to the internet in Part V and his question, “Which is mightier: the radicalism of the Internet or the inevitability of the Cycle?” (256). The internet holds some hope for preventing a closed, centralized system, as it was built on being open and decentralized. But Apple, AT&T, and media conglomerates have become major forces on the Internet recently, and this convergence online threatens the internet’s inherent openness.

Wu’s account is a compelling argument that we are at an important historical moment in which the internet could go the way of other information technologies: centralized and closed. This moment, then, requires thought and action. Wu’s historical accounts provide reminders that the government’s role is very influential in whether an industry centralizes or remains open. Further, he explains that if we are to remain diligent in keeping the Internet open, our society and information industry leaders need to develop a strong popular ethic toward openness in information.

While Wu’s historical analysis is informative about our present circumstances, the focus on history risks missing nuances of the present. His overall argument relies on a binary of open and closed that might too easily miss instances where innovation and expression online are enabled by constraints. Nevertheless, Wu’s strong historical context gives scholars, consumers, and producers of digital media reasons to be concerned about the growing power of companies like Apple, Comcast, and AT&T over the internet.

Biography

Michael J. Faris is a doctoral candidate studying rhetoric and composition in the Department of English at The Pennsylvania State University. His research and teaching areas of interest include technology studies, digital rhetorics, composition pedagogy, technical communication, and sexuality studies. He is currently writing his dissertation on conceptions and practices of social privacy in digital media settings.

© 2011 Michael J. Faris, used by permission


Technoculture Volume 1