Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Enlightening 'Switch'

Media maven Tim Wu illuminates the course of history -- and its future trajectory -- in The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site. 

If The Master Switch was a piece of software, it would be a killer app: not exactly original, and relatively narrow in function, but terrifically practical and elegant. A bit like an iPad, in fact, though one closer to the spirit of Steven Wozniak than as executed by Steven Jobs. (Remember Woz? The author would not be surprised if you don’t.) And therein lies the heart of its haunting argument about the way the future of communications will likely be found in the past.

The story Tim Wu tells in this book is a cyclical one. It begins when someone – an Alexander Graham Bell in telephony, a Thomas Edison in film, a Philo Farnsworth in television – emerges at the vanguard of a disruptive new technology, in the Joseph Schumpeter sense of creative destruction. Taken alone, that technology itself is insufficient; it needs an imperial-minded entrepreneur, like Alexander Vail of AT&T or David Sarnoff of RCA, to build a viable legal, political and economic infrastructure for it, and who then go on to dominate it, whether by vertical integration or the creation of a government-sanctioned cartel. These dominant players then fend off subsequent challenges, including those posed by genuinely better mousetraps in the form of new technologies like FM radio, cable television, or the Internet. But eventually the Old Guard gets felled, sometimes by opponents it failed to see coming, and sometimes by quirky historical circumstances: who would have figured that Richard Nixon would be the patron saint of cable TV? The new empire may include members of the old elite, as in NBC’s transition from radio or television, or in the reconstituted AT&T, whose colossal but shadowy power was glimpsed in the War on Terror, when the company complied with a Bush administration order to tap domestic phone lines. But there are always new players and new rules to be broken.

In its broadest outlines, Wu's story is clear enough – in meta-narrative terms, it’s as old as China – but the drama is in the details. It’s fascinating to learn, for example, that the dawn of radio broadcasting in the United States involved telephones. Farmers ignored by AT&T strung together galvanized and barbed wire to create party lines whereby they could all pick up their phones at the same time and get reports on news and the weather. Or that the venerable Bell Labs had pretty much perfected the technology for the answering machine decades before it appeared on the market, but smothered it in a mistaken belief that the ability to leave messages would destroy the telephone business.

But Wu doesn’t peer down these roads not taken not simply because they’re interesting in their own right. Or to make the good point that it’s our imaginations and memories that limit us as much as our technical capabilities. He also wants us to understand the decisive power that private enterprise has had on the shape of our communications, a power that goes far beyond the marketplace and plays a major role what we hear – and what we don’t.  As he notes, the government is constitutionally prohibited from limiting free speech. But the Catholic Church isn’t. And in its ability to convince a few (Jewish) movie moguls that it was easier to sidestep than resist it, the Church pretty much determined the artistic limits of the film business for decades. (Wu seems to overlook the tremendous subversive power of genres like film noir in this regime, but the point would be hard to entirely refute.)

Wu is no conspiracy theorist. He understands, and duly honors, the stability and achievements made possible by a sense of scale and freedom from competition – yes, once upon a time, the word "competition" did not have the talismanic status it enjoys in government and business. But he notes that our mania for deregulation in recent decades, one that began by unleashing pent up innovation, has now been perverted to the point that we regard anti-monopolistic measures as themselves onerous. He thus calls for a kind of federalism in the private sector that maintains barriers between hardware, content, and the lines, virtual and otherwise, which connect them. The maintenance of these barriers, provided by the government, should be both vigorous and limited.

As Wu sees it, the contemporary state of play on the electronic frontier is divided between two sides embodied by Google and Apple. The former, operating in a spirit comparable to the early broadcasting, is open, diverse and resistant to commercial exploitation. For these very reasons, Apple -- increasingly allied with the entertainment conglomerates -- promotes the walled garden approach that emphasizes quality control (not necessarily in that order). Though many observers have criticized Google’s vast reach and overweening tendencies, Wu emphasizes its vulnerability. Google owns virtually nothing in communications world it mediates, and he suspects it’s only a matter of time before wire operators (like the Chinese government) and content providers (Fox) put on the squeeze by opting out of its search algorithms. If so, the age we’re living in may well be far more golden than we imagine.

A final word about this persuasive book must be said about its graceful execution. Given the scope of its argument, The Master Switch is surprisingly short at just over 300 pages. It’s also written with an exceptionally deft hand. (My favorite line is about the Federal Communication Commission’s reaction to the prospect of cable television in the 1930s, which Wu compares to “a farmer dismayed by a tractor’s lack of horses.”) I ran into the book largely by accident, though my copy comes from the fifth hardcover printing, suggesting it has found an audience. It deserves one, as its argument will likely only grow more relevant.