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Tim Wu’s: The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires

by on October 19, 2010

Starred Review. According to Columbia professor and policy advocate Wu (Who Controls the Internet), the great information empires of the 20th century have followed a clear and distinctive pattern: after the chaos that follows a major technological innovation, a corporate power intervenes and centralizes control of the new medium–the master switch. Wu chronicles the turning points of the century’ s information landscape: those decisive moments when a medium opens or closes, from the development of radio to the Internet revolution, where centralizing control could have devastating consequences. To Wu, subjecting the information economy to the traditional methods of dealing with concentrations of industrial power is an unacceptable control of our most essential resource. He advocates not a regulatory approach but rather a constitutional approach that would enforce distance between the major functions in the information economy–those who develop information, those who own the network infrastructure on which it travels, and those who control the venues of access–and keep corporate and governmental power in check. By fighting vertical integration, a Separations Principle would remove the temptations and vulnerabilities to which such entities are prone. Wu’ s engaging narrative and remarkable historical detail make this a compelling and galvanizing cry for sanity–and necessary deregulation–in the information age.

More thought on monopolization of technology. This might be what is worth knowing, but important. New Yorker interview at


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  1. Hi Doug and other visitors.

    I haven’t read this particular book, but it seems to me that allowing money-and-power to be the main controllers and shapers of the daily information we get (e.g., the news media, the internet), public education, and government is, in all of these cases, problematic (to say the least). Education encompasses much of our early learning, our early “diet” of information, if you will. The news media and the internet provide much of our daily diet of current information and other info that’s important to understand “in real time”. And it’s through the political process that we choose our political leaders. So, allowing those three realms of life, in particular, to be highly influenced and controlled by money amounts to handing over your education, access to and intake of information, and leadership to moneyed interests — effectively selling your mind, or what your mind consumes, in a way. We need to get money OUT of those three areas — and all three of them — in my view. And there are ways to do it too. It’s rather astonishing that we haven’t made those shifts long ago, intellectually speaking anyhow. Of course, the much larger problem has to do with entrenched powers, not really with any sort of impossible-to-solve intellectual problem.

    Anyhow, I’m hoping that there are upcoming MAHB sessions in the works?

    Cheers for now,


    • Ok, how do we get the money out, and who would resist if we started to be successful? If the money were out, what would fuel the system, so to speak?

  2. Hi Doug,

    Several different questions.

    Figuring out how the money could be “out” — in other words, how these things (news media, politics, public education) could be accomplished without being dependent on “private” money in ways that allow biased pressures — is not all that hard. There are a number of ways. Good for a presentation topic or discussion some time, perhaps. That answer would answer your last question. And of course there is not “just one” solution. Probably a number of different sensible ways could work.

    HOW would we GET there — from here to there, so to speak — is another matter, involving the “who would resist?” question and others. As you can imagine, I’m sure, that’s the much harder question! I (obviously) don’t know most of the answer to that question, but (an optimist always) there must be ways. One thing I do think is likely, though: Almost certainly, one part of the getting-there will require will, action, activism. Not all intellectual. A great degree of sweat, tears, and (hopefully not too much) blood.

    Also, of course, the vision-in-progress and motivating energy ought to be positive. Better to strive FOR something attractive and attracting, than to try to derive sufficient motivation merely from fighting against something. Got to be reasonably fun and rewarding. As you know. That’s the challenge.

    Speaking of that, then, will there be refreshments served at the next MAHB?

    Cheers for now,


  3. The how requires lots of thought. there are so many steps and details and – derailments. Creating a better car requires lots of capital which requires selling lots of cars which means… oh, oh.

    So I am working on this: who will do what and when will they do it.

  4. Hi Doug,

    Yes, to be clear (I can see I used “how” in two different senses earlier), I think that the “how” it could work (i.e., the system once we get there) is one thing, but the “how” to get there is quite another. The former is much easier to figure out than the latter. And of course, there are more ways than one (on both matters).

    Also, the means should be at least somewhat guided, directionally anyhow, by some initial working vision of the end, as ambiguous and subject to change as that end might necessarily be. In other words, a bit of an interactive dance between means and ends as the future unfolds and the steps are taken.

    In any case, I’m glad you’re working on it. Are there any plans for actual sessions/meetings coming up soon?

    Cheers for now,


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