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The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires

3.93  ·  Rating Details ·  3,945 Ratings  ·  311 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 wi ...more
ebook, 384 pages
Published November 2nd 2010 by Vintage (first published 2010)
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This is a book which lives up to its bombastic subtitle, "The Rise and Fall of Information Empires". The reference to Edward Gibbon is apt, as this is a history of monopolies which aimed for total control over media and communication, and how these empires fell. Wu discusses the telephone industry (AT&T), radio (RCA), movies (Paramount), and sketches out a few tentative lines for the internet and smartphones (Apple, Google).

The main story here is how pioneers in each new communications indus
Elaine Nelson
As with Nothing to Envy, I should have written this review right after reading the book. It was fantastic, and I'd like to read it again. Great history of the "Information Empires" of the 20th and early 21st century, the continuing tension between openness and control. The history of television seemed particularly instructive: there was no early era of openness; instead Sarnoff (RCA/NBC) manipulated everything he could to make sure that it came out under the exact same control as radio at the ti ...more
Tim Wu
Sep 23, 2010 Tim Wu rated it it was amazing  ·  (Review from the author)  ·  review of another edition
I learned a tonne writing it
Irina slutsky
Nov 05, 2010 Irina slutsky is currently reading it  ·  review of another edition
by Irina Slutsky
SAN FRANCISCO ( -- Regular readers of Ad Age know that the companies that control the internet are, if not obsessed, then very concerned with the topic of network neutrality. Most recently Google and Verizon were the two giants rumored to have a plan to let users pay for faster access. "We already had the payola battle in radio, now this is the payola battle of the internet," said Tim Wu, the man who coined the term "network neutr
Tiffoknee the 3rd Conner
I happened upon this book after listening to NPR's On the Media. I had never heard of Tim Wu before. Now, I am eager to go back and find some of his Slate articles. Though Wu is a law professor this book is not a dense, arcane, dry book of legalese. The writing is brisk, intelligent, and challenging. The Master Switch is accessible, informative, and very engaging. Mr. Wu has written a very timely book about the history and power of communication and information industries in this country. What w ...more
Sep 15, 2012 Nilesh rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: good-non-fiction
There is an innate tendency in all of us to extrapolate from history, and often quite ridiculously. With the maxims like "those who do not know history, are condemned to repeat it", so many times these days, people overuse historical analysis. This book is a great recount of what happened before, but falls prey to heeding to history too closely.

"So many experts have this time is different written on their tombstone" is another proverb found everywhere. One should certainly believe in long cycles
Aug 31, 2013 Jayesh rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
The historical detail, especially in the first half, is extremely endearing and convincingly shadows the current state of information age. Be it the monopolistic behavior of corporate giants or importance of patents or keeping the government on your sides, things really do appear to repeat themselves.

The book sort of petered out coming to the present internet age. Wu (although quite understandably) is clearly biased a lot towards Google, seeing it as almost the only force of good, about which I
Pierre Lauzon
Mar 07, 2015 Pierre Lauzon rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I seldom give 5-star ratings but this 2010 book is a significant history and warning to us all about the ubiquity of information in our lives and what can happen if control of the information or media of transmission is controlled by a few.

The book begins with the development of the telephone and the rise of the AT&T monopoly. It moves to motion pictures and the gyrations of the developing industry into a vertically integrated system that stifled creativity. There are broad discussions of th
Kevin Gross
I found this book an interesting survey of the business undercurrents and politics surrounding and supporting the rise of various public information technologies, including telephones, film, radio, TV, and the Internet. From other sources, we hear frequently about the inventors like Alexander Bell and Phil Farnsworth, as well as others whose association with innovation is frequently overblown and misrepresented, like David Sarnoff. The author does a good, readable job of describing the world int ...more
Jul 28, 2014 Felix rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This was a fantastic read.

I was expecting much of this book to come as a breezy review of stuff I already knew, with some ancient history thrown in; how wrong I was.

This is not the story of Apple/Google. Or maybe it is, at least via analogy (which the book points out several times). What this book *is* about: Technology development (mostly in the USA) and how it intertwines with business interests (or I should really say, Big Business), starting from the late nineteenth century with the telephon
Aug 06, 2012 Terry rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The Master Switch chronicles what becomes called "The Cycle" through several iterations across radio, TV, cable, and finally the internet. This cycle is series of shifts in an information technology's status from hobby to rapid innovation to monopolization to possible reopening. The author tries to set up a history so that the reader can determine if the Internet will be different and after reading this book, I'm not as sure as I once was.

The History: Wu tracks several information technologies f
Kristine Morris
Aug 27, 2012 Kristine Morris rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The Master Switch by Tim Wu is a fantastic book. I heard Tim Wu speak on The Agenda with Steve Paikin about the open and closed systems and how the Internet will one day be owned by one company and it will no longer be free. At the time, this helped reinforce my anti-i status (i as in iPod, iPhone and iPad). Now that I’ve read his in-depth book about why the Internet needs to stay free and why it likely won’t, I am further convinced that supporting the Android platform is the ethical decision I ...more
David Dinaburg
Dec 21, 2012 David Dinaburg rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Radio, television, cinema, telephone, internet. If you have any interest in the industrial or technical history of information industries, The Master Switch is highly recommended.
More than anything else, the preceding chapters chronicle the corrupting effects of vertically integrated power. A strong stake in more than one layer of the industry leaves a firm in a position of inherent conflict of interest. You cannot serve two masters, and the objectives of creating information are often at odds
Apr 08, 2012 Evangeline rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Informative and interesting book on the communications industry. The author's thesis was that all communications industries/devices go through the Cycle, which involves an initial period of openness followed by a monopooly/oligopoly. It takes a disruptive innovation to shake things up and create another phase of openness. Ultimately, he seeks to show that the Internet, though it seems so egalitarian and open now, might one day become highly controlled. A battle royale is being waged between the ...more
Nov 05, 2011 Fredrik rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
a number of things sets this book back badly:

* it deals only with the us (with the exception of a few pages on the bbc), thus the "empires" amounts to at most nation-wide corporations within one country
* too restricted in time; only deals with the birth of telephony and onwards (what about telegraphy, the semaphor system deployed in france etc?)
* the author invents a vaguely described Cycle to describe the phases, as he sees them, of the rise and fall of corporations operating in the information
David Larochelle
"The Master Switch" is a rare gem. It would be considered must read for Wu insights into communications and information empires alone but it's also a joy to read. Wu is able to present substantive policy and economic analysis but at the same time keep the book entertaining and readable. "The Master Switch" reads like a novel and is filled with fascinating stories and anecdotes. It's a hard book to put down.

At the same time, Wu's message about the tendency of open communications media to become
Apr 08, 2011 Tuck rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
wu is the coiner of "net neutrality". in this book he chronicles radio and tv in usa 20th century (and nazi use of and ussr and china too), but the main point is the internet. he says the net as we know it could go one of two ways: toward a corporate model like tv, or as we have more or less used it since the 1990's, as an open, point to point device. the usa fcc is now deciding how this will shake out and truthfully, it looks like the corporations are going to win. thus we will pay for access a ...more
Nick Black
about what you'd expect from the five chapters excerpted onto swashbuckling profiles of masscomm's elder founders, fascinating people all (theodore vail of bell and adolph zukor of paramount particularly, and of course alexander graham), fawning over Apple (though he takes a refreshingly stark stance on the grim hegemony and clockwork control of an Apple-dominated future), blatant oversights with regard to historical philosophy (capitalized "Cycle" used throughout, but not a word of h ...more
Max Garton
Mar 04, 2016 Max Garton rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
In The Master Switch, Tim Wu chronologically explores the development of technology since the industrial revolution, eventually leading up to the internet in our modern world. He invesigates monopolistic practices of Theodore Vail's long distance telephone company, AT&T, and compares them to current internet and phone service providers' tendencies. Wu mentions that over time, technology industries tend to cycle between "open" and "closed" periods, depending on whether a new technology is con ...more
Daliso Ngoma
Jan 08, 2015 Daliso Ngoma rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
As of writing, the one holding the Master Switch is currently Google.

The book starts out with two questions:
1. Why you should care about these information empires?
2. Is the Internet any different from all other information empires?

These two questions are intertwined, and to a great degree seem to be dealt with adequately throughout the reading of the book.

What really grabbed me with this book was the tug between David and Goliath, the mere fact that a small entity is able to exploit the weakness
Jackie Lauren
Oct 13, 2014 Jackie Lauren rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Written by Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia and frequent contributor to magazines like The New Yorker and Time magazine, The Master Switch takes a look at several different information outlets and shows us the pattern that exists as each dominated the world and more importantly how each was ultimately replaced by something new. Tim Wu does a great job of taking a non-fiction book about technology and making it accessible and interesting to everyone. The book not only offers a theory on how inform ...more
Alan Lenton
Sep 23, 2014 Alan Lenton rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Subtitled 'The Rise and Fall of Information Empires' Tim Wu's book is a tour de force history of the four great information technologies of the 20th Century - the telephone, radio/television, movies, and the internet. The book is both a history and an analysis of these industries. The lessons we can draw from the stories he tells have serious implications for the current struggle over what is now known as 'net neutrality.

The individual stories of the technologies themselves are interesting enoug
Oct 11, 2014 Dustin rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book was a good walk through the history and application of information technology including the telegraph, phone, radio, movies, and the Internet. The power cycle of information empires was highly intriguing, and the pattern he points out--garnering as much power as possible until innovation destroys that empire--seems valid and thought provoking. However, I didn't buy his take on how good Google is. He paints Google as a company that is valiantly fighting for openness and privacy. While t ...more
Jan 24, 2016 Jeff rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
It seems impossible, but history suggests that the internet (at least the infrastructure of wires and switches) may be controlled by one firm. Through the last century all communication media have gone through creative and destructive cycles. They start with one innovator who may or may not have the scale to own the entire market. Soon, dozens or hundreds of small competitors will serve smaller markets where it is not financially profitable for the big player to serve. Eventually the small playe ...more
Jul 22, 2015 Dave rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Excellent history of the succession of information networks from the telegraph to the Internet, and the titanic businesses that built them. But it's much more than that; Wu ties all of this to the modern debate over net neutrality, casting light on a critical issue of our time, one often overlooked. Anyone interested in freedom of expression, especially as affected by structural and regulatory factors, should read this book.
May 30, 2016 Paddy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
For those remotely interested in the "net neutrality" debate this book offers the scaffolding of how common carriage came about with the rise of AT&T (how Bell and other took on the mighty Western Union in 1890s using a patent litigation), the enlightened monopoly (the Kingsbury commitment from AT&T), the ruthless crushing of the independents via legislation is truly a tour de farce. However as 'the cycle' shows, they break up only to re-emerge again without any of the previous social co ...more
Daniel Nogueira
Jan 31, 2015 Daniel Nogueira rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Columbia Law professor Tim Wu narrates the repeating cycles of the birth and demise of information-based industries (telegraph, telephone, radio, film, and the internet). The book is appealing both for narrating historical circumstances in which the each of those technologies were invented and for explaining the business development and maneuvering of the leading companies in each of the profiled industries.

Some random tidbits from my notes:
* The chapter on Western Union’s role as a republican
Steele Dimmock
This book is a historical look at the last 100 years of technology. It wasn't what I expected and I don't think the Author needed to include the history and evolution of Hollywood - which I found only mildly interesting when compared to the tale, from inception to market, of the telephone, radio and television.

Even though there are some fascinating stories told, the real surprise for me was how deeply entrenched big business was/is in every step of the technological journey. With patent infringe
Dec 21, 2014 Dale rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Great book. Enjoyed the way Tim Wu traced the history of information/communication/entertainment and culminated with the Internet.

I'm not convinced with all his conclusions, though. I think he gives too much credit to government regulation and government favoritism as well as ignoring how government interferes with the free market and capitalism.

For instance, he writes "American economic life has been built mostly on freewheeling capitalism." I would like to know an example of freewheeling, un
Jun 04, 2014 Jonathan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Wu surveys the rise of telephony, radio, television, movies and the Internet in order to support his central argument: information empires tend towards centralization, regardless of disruptive technologies. Movies gravitated towards a studio system that, at one point, controlled the theaters; and telephony, regardless of the limits placed on AT&T, tends to consolidate around a few large players. And even the almighty, decentralized Internet risks centralization depending on which, and how ma ...more
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Tim Wu is a writer and a professor at Columbia Law School. He has written about technology in numerous publications, and coined the phrase "net neutrality."
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“Nothing, save the hangman's noose, concentrates the mind like piles of cash.” 3 likes
“It is an underacknowledged truism that, just as you are what you eat, how and what you think depends on what information you are exposed to.” 2 likes
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