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The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires

3.87  ·  Rating details ·  7,565 ratings  ·  454 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
Hardcover, 384 pages
Published November 2nd 2010 by Knopf (first published 2010)
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Tim Wu
Sep 07, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  (Review from the author)
I learned a tonne writing it
Mario the lone bookwolf
Nov 22, 2019 rated it really liked it
I believed in the power and existence of the master switch long before the publishing of this book, because many future timelines by many famous Sci-Fi authors point in this direction and because it is a logical and to a certain extent necessary step for both government and industry.

We are not at the end of history, but probably at the end of new ways to control the information highways. Augmented reality, virtual reality and invasive techniques to participate better and more efficient all won
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
May 25, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: review
Two of my favourite books in the recent past have been The Moral Animal and The Sovereign Individual. I liked them because they brought out the fundamental patterns that underlie the evolution and behaviour of humans and the system of the world respectively. The Master Switch does the same with communication and information empires.
His premise is this - history has shown that communication/information technologies follow a predictable path : it starts as an idea in a mind/group of minds ty
Dec 06, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I started this a while back, got half way, and then moved on to his other books. So I started it again and read it all the way through and I'm so glad I did. This book is a fascinating history of monopoly power--how it was built and how it shaped modern media, the internet, AT&T, etc. It's just as relevant now as when it was written. ...more
Irina slutsky
Nov 05, 2010 is currently reading it
by Irina Slutsky
SAN FRANCISCO (AdAge.com) -- 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
Mahendra Palsule
An important book and a must-read for policy makers and those who value freedom of expression and net neutrality.

Most of the book is devoted to tracing the history of information industries in the US - telephone, radio, tv, and film. Tim convincingly describes how each industry inevitably goes through a cycle - oscillating between an open, decentralized network and a closed, centralized one. Some of the historic episodes were quite shocking to me. Most prominent among those were learning how the
Sep 06, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
I enjoyed this book very much. All this information about the... information industry was enlightening and really useful for understanding how the world of technology and media has developed and is still developing. From a European standpoint, the conclusion in the end, the "separations principle" proposal, seems a bit like wishful thinking but nevertheless the book is very engaging, well-written and kept me constantly craving to learn more. ...more
Tiffany Conner
Nov 26, 2010 rated it really liked it
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
Hashin Jithu
Nov 13, 2014 rated it it was amazing
A great read for those who are interested in understanding the historical background of the huge information empires today. It carefully analyses the rise and fall of the information empires of the past and Tim Wu comes up with am interesting explanation of cyclic changes present in the industry. He dissect all major information empires of the twentieth century and the early twenty first century and argues on how his pattern fits in the changing world.

A must read for all those who are interested
Sep 15, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Brendan Holly
Jun 27, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Probably this is too high of a rating, but about 1/3 of the way in I realized just how ignorant I was about the history of information technologies in the past century. I was fascinated by the intertwining histories presented in this book, most intensely by the public/private AT&T monopoly - a word which fails to capture the awesome power of AT&T for the first 3/4 of the 20th century. Of course, in 2018 The Master Switch is both anachronistic and prescient as we await the consequences of the FCC ...more
Oct 05, 2011 rated it it was ok
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
May 31, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
Nick Black
about what you'd expect from the five chapters excerpted onto slate.com: 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
Vikas Erraballi
Jan 17, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A historical analysis of 20th/21st century 'information industries' (telephone, radio, TV and film) attempting (successfully IMO) to identify patterns in their emergence/evolution and the consequences/implications of those patterns to US culture and politics.

Behind the analysis is a question of whether the internet industry will evolve similarly. Wu uses Schumpeter's theory of creative-destruction as a foil to highlight all the ways government can (and has) intervened to contradict the outcomes
Jul 16, 2012 rated it really liked it
Moved to gwern.net. ...more
Lenny D
May 23, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
In the very last line of The Master Switch, Tim Wu's magisterial argument about the nature of information systems, the author catalyzes the argument he’s just spent 300 pages making, largely from a historian’s perspective, with a jarring statement about the future:

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 dominat
Apr 15, 2022 rated it it was amazing
A very good book covering the history of information and communications industries, mainly in America. The title is slightly misleading, as the idea of a “Master Switch” is one of a few discussed within. I think the two more important themes of the book are

- the forces influencing information technologies to move between open and closed standards
- the strong public interest in information industries specifically, and how government has always acted with private industry (sometimes for the better
Taylor Pearson
The Subtitle of this book, The Rise and Fall of Information Empires, captures the gist. This book starts with the founding of AT&T/Bell, the first information empire, and traces the history of radio, television and the movie industry, culminating in an analysis of today’s information empires: Google, Facebook and, perhaps again, AT&T.

The main thrust of Wu’s argument is that information monopolies are fundamentally different than other types of monopoly because they have what economists call exte
Kevin Gross
Aug 12, 2015 rated it liked it
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
It is the summer of 2018. We have the now approved merger of AT&T and Time-Warner in the US. As well, Apple’s Chinese iCloud service will move to a state-controlled data centre which will in all likelihood be monitored by the Chinese government.

I thought it a good time to revisit Tim Wu’s 2010 classic “The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires” as a backdrop to new information monopolies such as Google and facebook, and to look at the AT&T merger under the lens of an earlier bo
Ashwin Chhabria
Sep 22, 2018 rated it really liked it
In the book Master Switch, Tim Wu details the history of the US tech industry discussing the inventions of telegraph, radio, television and the internet with several case studies.


1. Government interventions can disrupt natural growth and innovation- New technologies don’t always result out of free playing forces of the market. The entry of television was delayed by intention (so the radio could have an extended period of profit). The US government supported Bell Labs/AT&T for the longe
Tales of disruptive innovation in information industries backed by historical facts and academic theory.

The author theorizes that information empires go through a cycle that usually leads to monopolies. He uses the telephone, cinema, radio and television in order to raise the question whether internet will go through the same path.

For me, the most interesting part was to see all the power plays that went behind the scenes and ended up shaping our relationship with communication, entertainment a
Aaron Arnold
Apr 04, 2012 rated it really liked it
This book is divided into two parts: the first 300 pages, which is a high-level history of how a common cycle of innovation and monopolization has manifested itself in various communication/information industries like radio, movies, television, telephone, cable TV, and the internet. Then there's the last chapter, which is Wu's What Is To Be Done? moment where he suggests a possible regulatory regime that will protect the public interest in these network technologies while still allowing for suff ...more
David Dinaburg
Dec 10, 2012 rated it really liked it
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 23, 2019 rated it really liked it
Really excellent examination of the history of information monopolies, with some incredible insights on the process. I'm not sure I agree with Wu's idea of a 'Cycle' and his suggestion that the new monopolists are more benevolent seems laughable in 2019, but this is a great book nonetheless and contains some very worthy ideas regarding regulation and how information monopolies differ from others. ...more
Aug 26, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The book traces the power struggles in the American information industry from the age of the internet dominated by Google, Facebook and Apple all the way to the age of the telegraph where Western Union dominated the scene.

The book, a lot more interesting than I expected, reads like a legal thriller most of the time than a non-fiction. At 320 pages, it is not big but still packed with information- cycles of birth and death of information empires and their influence on American politics. In the l
Apr 18, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Compared to The Attention Merchants, this one leans heavier on describing a theory and recommending specific political changes. This isn't all bad, necessarily, but it doesn't age as well as the sections exploring specific corners of history. Fortunately, there are still plenty of those, and the book provides some useful ideas overall. ...more
Jle Mail
May 09, 2020 rated it it was amazing
It took me forever to read this book. Its very dense - lots of starting and stopping. But very rewarding. Its a lot of history of media and telecom in the US, a good introduction to who is making money off your attention span and how they are regulated.
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Tim Wu is an author, a professor at Columbia Law School, and a contributing writer for the New York Times.. He has written about technology in numerous publications, and coined the phrase "net neutrality." ...more

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