The Master Switch | Tim Wu

Summary of: The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires
By: Tim Wu


Delve into the world of information technology and its ever-recurring lifecycle in Tim Wu’s ‘The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires’. Discover how technological advancements, from the telephone to the internet itself, follow a typical pattern – one that transitions from a phase of openness to being governed by monopolies. Wu’s book explores the implications of this cycle on innovation, creativity, and market competition. By diving into the histories of the telephone, radio, film, and television industries, you’ll gain an understanding of how these industries have evolved within their respective cycles and analyze the current state of the internet – a gateway to yet another cycle.

The Lifecycle of Information Technology

The lifecycle of information technology follows a common pattern from open to closed. The cycle begins with a technology being freely accessible and becomes controlled by a single corporation or cartel. The development of the telephone and radio demonstrate this cycle, starting with an open phase where hobbyists and engineers could tinker with the technology. The film industry was also controlled by a cartel but declared itself “independent” in 1909, leading to an era of creativity and specialty films. The open phase allows for a wide variety of content limited only by the creativity of broadcasters.

The Rise of Monopolies

This book talks about how industries get monopolized and the media becomes closed after a period of openness. The author details how AT&T, founded by Alexander Bell, established its monopoly on the telephone market by lowering prices to force competitors out of business. Similarly, the radio industry became commercialized by the 1930s, bringing about powerful broadcasting networks like CBS and NBC. The film industry also came under the control of one corporation, Paramount, which dominated by controlling the movie stars, directors, writers, studios, and theaters. Overall, the book highlights how monopolies come to power by first gaining control of the market and then expanding their influence.

Suppressed Innovations

The clash between technology and business can be seen in the suppression of valuable breakthroughs made by company engineers. This clash has led to several inventions not being discovered until years after their initial creation. Case studies reveal how AT&T suppressed the answering machine because it could potentially hurt its business. The invention of FM radio, which could open doors to more broadcasters in the market, was fought against by radio monopolies, who criticized it as an unproven, experimental technology. Hollywood introduced a production code that prevented the production of niche films, hindering the development of creative cinema. The problem with research done in corporate labs is that innovations that do not benefit a company’s bottom line are often neglected.

The Control and Commercialization of Television

In 1926, John Logie Baird presented the first working television. However, big radio companies like CBS and NBC immediately saw the potential for profit and pushed for complete control of the industry. License requirements were set so high that small companies were kept out, and only trusted broadcasters were allowed to operate. This closed-shop approach continued until the advent of cable television in the 1980s. Hobbyists developed cable to compete with local channels run by national networks, unwittingly challenging the control of big corporations. By 2010, the majority of Americans paid for television programs through cable, satellite, or fiber optics.

Innovation through Competition

When monopolies are broken, innovation and creativity can flourish. This happened in the late 1960s with the breakup of AT&T’s monopoly, which led to the birth of several new technologies. A similar period of experimentation occurred in the film industry when Paramount’s monopoly was broken up, leading to the collapse of the production code system and the emergence of independent producers. The government’s decision to break up monopolies created pools of competition within larger markets, allowing for new areas of innovation and experimentation to emerge.

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