By Chet Yarbrough
The Master Switch
By Tim Wu
Narrated by Marc Vietor
Tim Wu writes about the capitalist drive to acquire a master switch that controls how the public receives information. President Biden has chosen Wu to serve on the White House National Economic Council. It will be interesting to see what influence Wu will have on American technology companies.
TIM WU (AUTHOR, PROFESSOR OF LAW AT COLUMBIA
The first section of “The Master Switch” sets a table for understanding 21st century communication technology. Wu doggedly recounts a history of the communication industry. It will turn some listeners off but stick with it, Wu does have something to say.
“The Master Switch” is written before Huawei technology company became a perceived security and privacy threat. Instead of corporate domination of the internet, Huawei might be a nation-state security and privacy threat. Huawei’s break-through 5g internet system is coveted by many countries in the world.
Some of what Wu reveals is counter intuitive. Steve Jobs’ genius is not as a technical wizard but as a deal maker.
None of these revelations denigrate the spectacular achievements of Jobs and Wozniak or the success of any of the companies mentioned. Jobs is a marketing genius that envisions what the market doesn’t know they want and demands perfection in a product that will serve that market.
STEVE WOZNIAK (Wozniak, is characterized as the real wizard of “Menlo Park” –a few doors down from a similar laboratory occupied by Bill Gates.)
In their early days, one suspects neither genius cared about the power and influence of the internet and the potential of a “Master Switch” controlled by a government, or corporation. A prospect that is both troubling and (probably) inevitable.
Wu is arguing that communication businesses have expanded and contracted like rubber bands; i.e. pulled and snapped by inventors, governments, and business moguls.
From what Wu reports, history favors the likelihood of a “Master Switch” controlled by one of these rubber band pullers.
Wu’s stories of the communication industry suggest that a closed system is more likely to prevail in the shake-out of the internet; i.e. one “switcher” that will control the medium. The Trump administration endorses that philosophy by suggesting the private sector is a better arbiter of control than the government. Wu shows that a closed system tends to perpetuate itself and retard innovation because of a monopolist’s fear of competition.
In today’s political climate, the potential of a closed system looms large. Wu recounts the history of telephony, radio, movie, and television communication businesses that started as open systems but evolved into closed systems due to the acquisitive and greedy nature of mankind.
Wu argues that vertical integration (a closed system) of the communication industry can be discouraged with a check and balance system.
He suggests inventors, manufacturers and government regulators should remain independent (integrated horizontally rather than vertically) to check and balance human nature’s drive for one entity’s control of a “Master Switch”. This seems unlikely in light of an autocratic government like China. China’s outsize involvement and influence on the financing and regulation of a company like Huawei is an unlikely check and balance on sovereign security or privacy.
Wu lauds Google for preaching and practicing open system management of the internet but the history of communication companies reminds the listener that founders and their philosophies mutate. Private industry history of corporate greed in a capitalist society makes one suspect.
A check and balance system for communication or any industry is unlikely to grow based on past experience and human nature.
Free societies over-regulate and then under-regulate. America has always practiced rubber band management. Separation of powers is a temporary construct; not a permanent condition. When conflict begins, human nature takes charge. Mankind is acquisitive, greedy, and human.
Wu is a naive free enterprise philosophizer. History, Ayn Rand, and human nature tell us that the internet will become a closed system.
The public doesn’t understand technology and could care less. “Show me the product and what it can do”. “Show me the money” are humankind’s arbiters of who gets the “Master Switch”.
Ignorance of communication technology is everywhere. Consumers are more interested in what they can get than what they can change.
The general public would rather let someone else make product decisions and vote with their pocketbook when they are dissatisfied. That seems an even greater threat with a company like Huawei that is integrated with an autocratic government.
Wu opens one’s mind but fails to come up with a plan that will change the internet’s future.