By Chet Yarbrough
The Master Switch
By Tim Wu
Narrated by Marc Vietor
“The Master Switch” will flip some listeners off and some on.
Tim Wu writes about the capitalist drive to acquire a master switch that controls how the public receives information. The first section of the book 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.
Some of what Wu reveals is counter intuitive. Steve Jobs’ (Apple’s CEO) genius is not as a technical wizard but as a deal maker. Jobs early partner, Wozniak, is characterized as the real wizard of “Menlo Park” (actually a garage inventor a few doors down from a similar laboratory occupied by Bill Gates).
None of these revelations denigrate the spectacular achievements of Jobs or the success of any of the companies mentioned. But, the power and influence of the internet and the potential of a “Master Switch” controlled by any one company or person 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. And, 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”.
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. 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.
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. The public doesn’t understand technology and could care less. “Show me the product and what it can do” and “Show me the money” are mankind’s arbiters of who gets the “Master Switch”.
Wu opens one’s mind but fails to come up with a plan that will change the internet’s future.