Tim Wu’s MASTER SWITCH: THE RISE AND FALL OF INFORMATION EMPIRES
Review by Dennis D. McDonald
I just finished reading Tim Wu’s 2010 book MASTER SWITCH: THE RISE AND FALL OF INFORMATION EMPIRES. The lessons of history (telephone, telegraph, FM radio, networks, cable TV, etc.) and how companies with the complicity of government try to shut off competition are incredibly important given current battles to save net neutrality.
I was stopped by Wu’s insistence on characterizing Google as “open” and as a “search company.” Google is a content company where the content being sold is advertising. Google uses information gleaned from email, user searches, and other behaviors to fine tune and target this advertising and this is how it makes money. Wu’s failure to incorporate this commercial reality into his thesis seems to me to be an oversight and one that weakens his main points somewhat.
I do agree with this characterizing information industries as being more rapacious and control oriented than more traditional “widget manufacturers.” In my experience with information companies I’ve witnessed a perceivable difference from industries where value is derived from more concrete activities than selling access to bits over air or wire.
Wu’s final chapter is the best one. That is where he plays out his concept of “separation” which, I think if taken seriously, would put the kibosh on the proposed disastrous merger between Comcast and Time Warner. You can’t read this book and still have any positive thoughts about that competition-killing merger, in my opinion.
Would Wu’s idea of “separation” have prevented Google’s purchase of Motorola or Microsoft’s purchase of Nokia? If you take his “separation” ideas seriously, these attempts by Google and Microsoft at vertical integration (which he harshly criticized Apple for elsewhere in the book) might have been nixed.
Still, this is one splendidly researched book. Its lessons on how information industries are different from other industries in how they interact with and impact us personally, economically, and politically are stellar. That’s the book’s greatest strength. Hopefully it will be read by legislators and Chief Justices alike.
Copyright © 2014 by Dennis D. McDonald