Book review – The Master Switch by Timothy Wu

Information industries from the telegraph to the Internet oscillate between open and closed states. This thesis forms the backbone of Columbia University law professor Tim Wu’s fascinating history of the media and elecommunications sector in the US, The Master Switch.

Wu demonstrates that today’s debate regarding net neutrality (a term he coined) and the openness of the Internet continues a cycle that has revolved since at least the 19th century.

That said, The Master Switch could not be more timely. Between the revolution in Egypt and the US government’s response to the Wikileaks, the question of whether the Internet could or should be centrally controlled is a pressing one.

Although Wu’s personal position is clear throughout the book, this is by no means a one-sided argument. Instead it is a formidably researched and well-written history that gives credit to closed networks when it is due.

For example, US telecommunications giant AT&T, one of the book’s lead characters, was once both an entrenched monopoly and a force for the public good, Wu writes. No less than seven scientists from AT&T’s Bell Labs research facility won Nobel prizes, though innovation was always secondary to the company’s often-blinkered interests.

He is less kind to today’s telecommunications giants (all of them former AT&T subsidiaries), media conglomerates and technology companies that seem bent on imposing central order on the Internet.

However, Wu does not pretend to know the future. The critical question – “Which is mightier: the radicalism of the Internet or the inevitability of the Cycle?” – remains unanswered.

What might have been an abstract and obtuse pamphlet is enlivened by vignettes and anecdotes from the history of America’s successive “information empires”. For example, when the founders of the successful US website petitioned Time Warner for investment in 1995, executives at the media giant appeared to think the idea was to send readers a magazine “like a fax”. (Five years later, Time Warner merged with AOL.)

The Master Switch infuses the often maddeningly abstract debate concerning net neutrality with strong characters, clear thought and an engaging sense of history. Highly recommended.

The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires
By Timothy Wu. Published by Atlantic Books
ISBN: 9780857822126. Price: £19.99

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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