Review: The Master Switch

This book asks the question “Is the internet different?”  Different, that is, to the other main communication industries (telecommunications, radio, cinema and television) that have come before it, once revolutionary but ultimately consumed and dominated by big industry.  Could the internet, with all its early idealism and promise, succumb to the same forces?

We view the internet as something entirely new, a paradigm shift that has the power to supplant entire industries (music, large scale media) with a speed that has never been seen before.  It brings with it the freedom for everyone to express their opinions to the world, in an environment that has incredibly low barriers to entry.  New business models – and the promise of untold riches for the winners.

But history tells another story.  It highlights how we have seen revolutions of this type time and time again.

Some of the aspects of this “cycle”, as the author calls it, include:

  • the personality traits of the people running these companies and industries reappear over and over
  • how early ideals of freedom and expression are overtaken by businesses so that products and industries become centralised, controlled and regulated
  • the “rules” are often decided by businesses, with government being largely ineffectual or manipulated
  • the repeated discussions over what is best –  centralised control or open systems
  • the effect on innovation if one company effectively becomes dominant (it compliments existing technologies rather than displacing them)
  • how the young disrupters can become focused on their own interests (up to and including blocking new entrants to an industry), when they themselves obtain a dominant position of power – much the same as those they originally replaced.

The most salient equivalent in today’s technology arena is the ideological battle between Apple (with the iconic figure of Steve Jobs at the helm) and Google.  Apple attempts to take control of the way customers use the products they introduce (iPhone / iPad / iOS) on the basis that it is (in their view) in the interest of the consumer and provides a superior experience.  Google, with its more open Android platform, allows consumers the opportunity to get exactly what they want – and the winning products will be those chosen by the market.

But when it comes to the (still nascent) internet, that is not the entire story.  The reality is far more nuanced.  Not only is there the battle between “open” and “closed” amongst those companies of the internet economy, but there is also the continuing threat from the companies that own the physical infrastructure – the same companies that crop up time and time again.  The risks for internet based companies are well explained in the book.  We may be seeing history repeat itself in many ways, but the stakes now are higher as the implications for communication are more profound than ever.  What plays out over the next few years will determine how the world works for a long time to come.

The book takes well into its second half  to start answering the question it sets itself at the beginning.  Before then we get a history lesson that examines the different “information empires” and the characters that have played a leading role.  Although almost entirely based on the experience in the US, the story is both fascinating and well told – I now understand the degree to which the situation in the US today has been determined by the actions of a few companies and people over the course of the entire 20th century.

Can we afford for it to happen again?  Could we stop it if it did (would we want to)?  Will the rest of the world agree?  Is it even possible? Or is it inevitable?  Is it already well underway?

All are valid questions, and ones to which there are no answers at the moment.  Sometimes the answers are not clear until it is too late.  Even so, it’s going to be interesting to see how this plays out.

UPDATE:

Why Tim Wu’s Advising the FTC is Bad for Google

UPDATE 2:

Tim talks to The Guardian’s Tech podcast about the book.

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