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380 pages, Kindle Edition
First published January 1, 2010
Our dependence on smartphones, tablets, and other devices has delivered us to a moment when our insatiable demand for bandwidth left us vulnerable. Let us, then, not fail to protect ourselves from the will of all who might seek domination of those resources we cannot do without. If we do not take this moment to secure our sovereignty over the choices that the information age has allowed us to enjoy, we cannot reasonably blame its loss on those who are free to enrich themselves by taking it from us in a manner history has foretold.
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 with those of disseminating it.That statement is supported with hundreds of pages of fascinating examples, ranging from Paramount to NBC, AOL to CNN. The unifying thread—and exhibit par excellence—is Bell Communications and their control over America's long distance lines. Bell, and the multitude of titles it has adopted or been forced into over the past century plus, most recognizably AT&T, has perhaps the most interesting history I have ever heard concerning a business entity.
...[s]ince antiquity, certain functions have been recognized by the state as being essential to the economy and commerce and therefore necessarily subject to nondiscriminatory policies. For such firms, also described as “public callings,” freedom and opportunity for profit come with responsibility as well. In the American Information industries, such duties were first imputed to the telegraph and telephone companies by the Taft administration in 1910; once it is recognized that a network has passed from a novelty to a necessity, the ancient justifications for common carriage reappear, even if under different names.The historical details continue with a sentiment common to other past-facing books discussing networks; each time communications technology leaps forward, utopian idealists proclaim it to be the answer to the world’s ailments:
There was even, perhaps unexpectedly for an electronic medium, hope for the elevation of verbal discourse. “There is no doubt whatever that radio broadcasting will tend to improve the caliber of speeches delivered at the average political meeting,” read a column from the 1920s in Radio Broadcast.However, there is an undercurrent throughout The Master Switch that the internet is not per se different from any other advance in communications technology, from telegraph on upwards; even its particular brand of extreme decentralization cannot stave off the “walled garden” model pounding at the gate, though it seemed to be the deciding factor in scuttling the AOL-Time Warner merger. The internet seems to be inexorably marching toward the next step in what author Tim Wu has dubbed ‘the cycle’: “...when we look closely at the twentieth century, we soon find that the internet wasn’t the first information technology supposed to have changed everything forever. We see in fact a succession of optimistic and open media, each of which, in time, became a closed and controlled industry...”
Google’s close relationship with Verizon—its first friendship with a Bell—is hard to interpret. Eric Schmidt and Google believe they are converting Verizon to the side of openness and sundering the Bell Empire for good. But we’ve heard that before, and it is not completely clear who is converting whom. Verizon/Google makes for a powerful vertical combination. Verizon, formerly known as Bell Atlantic, is a seasoned monopolist, having held parts of its domain since the capitulation of Western Union in the 1870s. And so it may be Google that is learning from the master.We shall see.