Tim Wu builds a convincing case for the communication industry to be regulated by an ‘information morality’ in this seminal book.
The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires is a fascinating, wide-ranging, and inspiring book about communications policy and information industries. This comes as no surprise as Wu is one of America’s great information policy scholars and communicators, probably best known for coining the term ‘Net Neutrality.’
In Master Switch, Wu gives us a glimpse into his vast and broad knowledge of communications policy and its history, the groundwork that gave rise to his ideas, and presents an inspiring path to a better world of better networks (even as he shows the risks of not taking such a path). He makes the convincing case that the Net is different, that its stakes are higher than any communications battle in memory, though the form of the battle is a familiar one. Wu is an accomplished scholar who can write about complex ideas in ways that are accessible to all. And the ideas he’s covering are as important as any in our ideological marketplace today.
Wu’s great strength is in the breadth of his scholarship and in his ability to use humour, clear language, and innovative arguments to connect diverse ideas. Thus in Master Switch, we have a brilliant explanation and history of what Wu calls ‘the Cycle,’ through which information industries rise, consolidate, monopolise, capture governments, force out competitors, and, eventually, fragment into something less grandiose, less perfect, but more vibrant, open, and innovative.
Connecting the dots
The author connects the industrial and informational monopolies of AT&T, the film trust, the exhibitors monopoly, the radio monopoly, the fight over FM, the censorship of the Hays Code for film-makers, the liberation of the Hayes Code for operating modems, the dashed hopes for a diverse and vibrant cable TV landscape, and, ultimately, the invention of the Internet.
The uniqueness of communications as an industry means that regulation and markets fail more often around them, and that the failures are worse. In response to this, Wu builds the case for a set of principles around information industry ownership, concentration, and structure, and proposes that these be regulated largely by an ‘information morality’ — not by a single regulatory agency or a single statute book, but ultimately by an emergent consensus about the value of information freedom as a vital substrate for free speech and free societies.
Wu wisely avoids magic-bullet solutions to the inevitable problems of the communications industry. Simply keeping government out of the business does not work, because the industry tends to form private monopolies if left alone. And having the government run the business, as England and other countries have tried, presents its own problems. The government itself is a monopolist and often behaves like one. Wu instead calls for constraining “all power that derives from the control of information.” He writes, “If we believe in liberty, it must be freedom from both private and public coercion.” The central idea of this book, is that market competition brings enormous benefits, but the market itself does not ensure competition – or, more broadly, desirable outcomes.