Book Review: “The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires” by Tim Wu

Posted: March 17, 2017 in Book Reviews
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The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information EmpiresThe Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires by Tim Wu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was a fascinating book. Tim Wu is a big-picture guy and he writes from that perspective as he details the history of the information empires that have risen and fall in the last 120 years in America.

The span starts with the telephone and ends with the internet. In between are film, radio, television, computers, and cable TV.

Highlighted here are familiar information empires like AT & T, Bell Telephone, NBC, CBS, Paramount, Warner Brothers, TCM, TNT, and TBS, as well as Apple, Microsoft, and Google.

Also highlighted are the actual timelines of information systems that we have been led to believe originated later than they actually did. The technology for TV, for example, was working in the 1930’s, but NBC (which controlled radio which was the pervasive form of entertainment in America at the time) shut it down because it would cost them control and revenue. The same is true for cable TV (technology was available in the 1940’s), for telephone service (until the 1970’s, telephone’s were hard-wired so that all equipment and service had to come from Bell Telephone), and the basic technology for personal computers which was developed during World War II.

One of the most interesting descriptions is of the break up of Bell Telephone in the 1980’s and it’s reformation in the 21st century (Verizon, AT & T, and Qwest are the new Bell Telephone – they are simple repackaging of the baby Bells that came from the breakup of the monopoly in the 1980’s and they are all in collusion with each other to dominate phone service – now mostly cell service – in America, backed by the still functioning Bell Labs and their engineers and scientists).

In each information empire, Wu shows what he calls “the Cycle” of how disruptive innovation creates a new system that is open and free to all only to be captured and controlled by someone with money and power to become closed and costly. Once that system is controlled, any attempts to change it or overturn it by another disruptive innovation are crushed and destroyed to keep the current system in place.

Once a system is in place, innovation is squelched and replaced by simply improving – or seeming to – the status quo.

What made this book even more intriguing for me was that Wu’s system of disruptive innovation vs improving the status quo, open and free systems versus closed and costly systems, and diffuse organization versus centralized control applies to every system we know about.

It is the way we humans are and think at our very core (that is not a good thing), and once a system gets so deeply entrenched, greed, power, and control will do whatever it takes (legal, illegal, right, wrong, moral or immoral, honest or dishonest) to keep it entrenched forever (not that forever in a physical sense happens, but that’s part of the folly of how we humans think and behave).

I highly recommend this book. It very insightful, not just in the way it describes the information empires America has seen rise and fall, but also into the bigger picture of how we and the world work.

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