The Master Switch
The Rise and Fall of Information Empires
By Tim Wu
(Knopf Publishing Group, Hardcover, 9780307269935, 366pp.)
Publication Date: November 2, 2010
List Price: $28.95*
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As Wu's sweeping history shows, each of the new media of the twentieth century--radio, telephone, television, and film--was born free and open. Each invited unrestricted use and enterprising experiment until some would-be mogul battled his way to total domination. Here are stories of an uncommon will to power, the power over information: Adolph Zukor, who took a technology once used as commonly as YouTube is today and made it the exclusive prerogative of a kingdom called Hollywood . . . NBC's founder, David Sarnoff, who, to save his broadcast empire from disruptive visionaries, bullied one inventor (of electronic television) into alcoholic despair and another (this one of FM radio, and his boyhood friend) into suicide . . . And foremost, Theodore Vail, founder of the Bell System, the greatest information empire of all time, and a capitalist whose faith in Soviet-style central planning set the course of every information industry thereafter.
Explaining how invention begets industry and industry begets empire--a progress often blessed by government, typically with stifling consequences for free expression and technical innovation alike--Wu identifies a time-honored pattern in the maneuvers of today's great information powers: Apple, Google, and an eerily resurgent AT&T. A battle royal looms for the Internet's future, and with almost every aspect of our lives now dependent on that network, this is one war we dare not tune out.
Part industrial exposE, part meditation on what freedom requires in the information age, "The Master Switch" is a stirring illumination of a drama that has played out over decades in the shadows of our national life and now culminates with terrifying implications for our future.
Columbia law professor Tim Wu writes that information technologies have all gone through a similar life cycle: "Information technologies give rise to industries, and industries to empires." Wu says this cycle ultimately destroys the innovative spirit that creates new information technologies and the openness that typifies them in their early years. In his new book, The Master Switch, Wu asks if the Internet is next. NPR's Robert Siegel asks Wu if the history of various information technologies -- the telephone, movies, radio, television -- can predict the future of the Internet. More at NPR.org
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