The Manichean World of Tim Wu

Paul Starr

For the past dozen years, several distinguished thinkers about law and technology have warned that a golden age of Internet freedom may be about to close. The most influential alarm-ringer has been Lawrence Lessig, who argued in his 1999 book, Code, that under corporate and governmental pressures, the Net could be flipped to serve top-down control instead of individual freedom. In The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It (2008), Jonathan Zittrain showed why this reversal might come about as a result of popular demand. Both the personal computer and the Internet are what Zittrain calls “generative” technologies, free to be built on without corporate or governmental permission. Besides generating positive innovations, however, these technologies invite viruses and other mischief, which drive people toward safe, reliable “information appliances” tethered to particular companies (think Apple’s iPhone). Those appliances may be not just convenient but even dazzling in their design and performance, while subtly transforming the once freewheeling Net into a corporate-controlled system.

Now another book in the same vein, Tim Wu’s The Master Switch, presents a historical argument that the information industries are prone to cycles—actually, he calls it the Cycle—in which an initially wide-open industry gives way to a closed empire, until in time, the empire comes under attack, and the Cycle begins again.

Wu’s title phrase, “the master switch,” is a clever double entendre: Information industries switch back and forth between open and closed, and when they close down, the result is centralized control through a “master switch” (a phrase Wu borrows from Fred Friendly, one of the pioneers of television news). The basis for Wu’s argument is the development of the telephone, broadcasting, and movie industries in the 20th century, and for people who are unfamiliar with this history, the similarities Wu finds among these industries may make his argument seem convincing.

The Master Switch is an entertaining book, colorfully written with paired heroes and villains, typically lone inventors wronged by corporate empire builders. The best part of Wu’s book concerns recent struggles in the communications business. His accounts of the reconsolidation of the telecom industry and the battle between Google and Apple are superb. This is the terrain that Wu seems to know best; in fact, the book looks like a case of history written entirely from the standpoint of the present: Wu observed the conflict between the forces of openness and closure in the contemporary world, and sure enough, turning to history, he found the same pattern everywhere.

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