In this age of an open Internet, it is easy to forget that every
American information industry, beginning with the telephone, has
eventually been taken captive by some ruthless monopoly or cartel.
With all our media now traveling a single network, an unprecedented
potential is building for centralized control over what Americans
see and hear. Could history repeat itself with the next industrial
consolidation? Could the Internet--the entire flow of American
information--come to be ruled by one corporate leviathan in
possession of "the master switch"? That is the big question of Tim
Wu's pathbreaking book.
As Wu's sweeping history shows, each of the new media of the
twentieth century--radio, telephone, television, and film--was born
free and open. Each invited unrestricted use and enterprising
experiment until some would-be mogul battled his way to total
domination. Here are stories of an uncommon will to power, the
power over information: Adolph Zukor, who took a technology once
used as commonly as YouTube is today and made it the exclusive
prerogative of a kingdom called Hollywood . . . NBC's founder,
David Sarnoff, who, to save his broadcast empire from disruptive
visionaries, bullied one inventor (of electronic television) into
alcoholic despair and another (this one of FM radio, and his
boyhood friend) into suicide . . . And foremost, Theodore Vail,
founder of the Bell System, the greatest information empire of all
time, and a capitalist whose faith in Soviet-style central planning
set the course of every information industry thereafter.
Explaining how invention begets industry and industry begets
empire--a progress often blessed by government, typically with
stifling consequences for free expression and technical innovation
alike--Wu identifies a time-honored pattern in the maneuvers of
today's great information powers: Apple, Google, and an eerily
resurgent AT&T. A battle royal looms for the Internet's future,
and with almost every aspect of our lives now dependent on that
network, this is one war we dare not tune out.
Part industrial expose, part meditation on what freedom requires in
the information age, "The Master Switch" is a stirring illumination
of a drama that has played out over decades in the shadows of our
national life and now culminates with terrifying implications for
"From the Hardcover edition."
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