The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Nov 2, 2010 - Business & Economics - 384 pages
22 Reviews
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 exposť, 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.

From the Hardcover edition.

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User Review  - sdmouton - LibraryThing

3.5 stars, a wonderful history of telecommunications empires. I'm not sure I agree with the conclusions Wu draws, but that is probably my technological idealism overpowering reason. Read full review

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User Review  - ohernaes - LibraryThing

Goes through the modern "information" businesses in the US - telephone, radio, television and film, and internet. A recurrent theme is how upstarts become (power-abusing) empires. The communication ... Read full review


1 Soul 205
PARTII Beneath the AllSeeing Eye
The Rebels the Cliallengers and the Fall
The Internet Against Everyone 155
20 Father and Son
21 The Separations Principle

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About the author (2010)

Tim Wu is an author, a policy advocate, and a professor at Columbia University. In 2006, he was recognized as one of fifty leaders in science and technology by Scientific American magazine, and in the following year, 01238 magazine listed him as one of Harvard’s one hundred most influential graduates. He writes for Slate, where he won the Lowell Thomas gold medal for travel journalism, and he has contributed to The New Yorker, Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Forbes. He is a fellow of the New America Foundation and the chairman of the media reform organization Free Press. He lives in New York.

From the Hardcover edition.

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