Ron's Reviews > The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires

The Master Switch by Tim Wu
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's review
Aug 23, 2011

it was amazing
Read from August 23 to September 03, 2011

The Master Switch, by Tim Wu, is a tour through the American history of information industries on route to what may be the most important public policy issue facing our time: net neutrality (a term actually coined by Tim Wu in a 2003 essay). The idea is simple. Network operators should not be regulating the traffic that flows on their networks. No blocking of sites or individuals or types of traffic. No slowing down some traffic, or speeding up other traffic, regardless of type, source, time of day, or any other reason. No privileging of any traffic to the detriment of other traffic.

Free speech and the production of culture depend on what one supreme court justice termed the "marketplace of ideas." Free speech and the production of culture is thus about access to that marketplace. Today, all the channels of information and communication converge on one master network, the internet. Currently, the internet is a radically decentralized communications network. But there is nothing to say that it has to remain that way. In fact, the entire American history of the information industries tells a worrisome tale, following a pattern that Wu calls the Cycle. The Cycle is an alternation all of our communications technologies have passed through, going through periods of openness and decentralization, to closed periods and centralization with the rise of the different information empires, and quite often back again. This Cycle has often been aided by the federal government, such as with the creation of state sanctioned and favored monopolies (the Bell monopoly), and has occasionally been made to swing in the other direction once again by government action (such as the justice department's eventual breaking up of the Bell monopoly). It is a story of innovation and "creative destruction" during periods of openness, followed by periods of stifled innovation, of an established information empire shutting down promising new technologies. Which leaves us with a question: Is this time different?

Is the Internet different? Will the Internet, which has become so central to our economic and cultural life, avoid the Cycle, avoid the closed phase? Today, the public sphere exists in an information network. Now all information converges here. The stakes have never been higher. The Internet has shown the world that open beats closed. But it depends on an actual physical entity that can be warped or broken. With everything on one network, the potential power to control everything is so much greater.


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