Sunday, January 30, 2011

Tim Wu's "The Master Switch": Centralization v. freedom in global communications


Author: Tim Wu

Title: "The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires"

Publication: New York: Knopf, 2010, ISBN 978-0-307-26993-5, 366 pages, hardcover, indexed,  n Introduction and 21 Chapters, in five parts, Amazon link

In time, I will tell the story of what “I did” for the past fifteen years, once I had “free entry” into Internet publication, but as a proprietorship of one, I exercised the “vertical integration” that Wu considers the potentially self-defeating part of “The Cycle”.  I wrote, edited (hiring proofreading), self-published and to some extent self-distributed my first book. My Internet activity follows the same general path.

I can go off on a tangent here and say that there could be negative social consequences (or political ones) if one has “too much reach” into the public without a lot of personal commitment or “generativity”.   That’s an interesting area, “the privilege of being listened to,” off the track of Wu’s book, although he could have covered it.

Wu (a professor at Columbia) gives a sweeping historical account of the US communications and media industries since the late 19th Century, with some emphasis on telephone, radio, television, movies, and finally the Internet.  Until well into the 1990s with the Internet, asymmetric innovations tended to be engulfed and squashed by corporate monopolism, with a sine-wave cycle of innovation, centralization with elimination of competition, and then political objections leading to some decentralization and more innovation.

His account of movies is particularly interesting.  There was resistance to the idea that too many people could make film, and later there was controversy over whether “vertical integration” of functions (including distribution and exhibition as well as production) was a good thing. For a while, the “George Zukor” model won out. The result was a major studio system well able to make big films that could make money.  For a long time, independent filmmaking about diverse topics was difficult.  After studios could no longer own theaters, it got easier to make indie film. But big studios fell into a system of cookie-cutter content development, tending to depend on established characters or trademarked “franchises” of sequels.   The system also fell under the control of a regime of “private censorship” as he explains in the battles with the “Legion of Decency” and the older production codes that prevented challenging traditional values. Wu provides an interesting side discussion of how copyright and trademark law applies to movie and comic book characters.  

His history of television was interesting to me, since I’ve worked for RCA (1970-1971, at the David Sarnoff Research Center in Princeton) and later NBC (1974-1977). Coworkers who remember me may find this review interesting. He discusses Sarnoff in detail, even to the point of providing some backdrop to the events during my employment.  There were periods when the “establishment” kept television (starting as “mechanical”) and later cable at bay to maintain a “crossword puzzle style” capture audience and maximize profits short-term, a kind of raw capitalism.

Because the development of the Internet at first accelerated slowly (the WWW wasn’t getting mentioned until 1993), companies at first thought they could control content with vertical integration, as with the early versions of AOL and Prodigy. The faulty merger of AOL and Time Warner was based on this precept, based on earlier versions of “The Cycle.”  But “http” changed all that. And so did Google, which started out as essentially a “switch” that did so much by doing so little. It was the idea of “network neutrality” that made older Internet business models like AOL’s flounder.


Wu proposes an extension of “constitutionality” to the way private business works with worldwide communications. On p 304 he articulates a “Separations Principle” that would prevent any one telecommunications or media company (as defined by trading in public stock exchanges or private placements) for engaging in business in more than one “layer” of the entire system.  A Comcast could not merge with an NBC Universal in such a world. 

The interesting thing is that he seems to see a Separations Principle at the corporate level as essential to maintain free speech and “free entry” (which I took so much advantage of) for individuals and very small businesses, to maintain innovation. Perhaps the current controversy over the purported effect of bloggers on the newspaper industry fits into this view, as well as an interpretation of the recent "copyright trolling" by Righthaven to sue bloggers as part of the battle for "control". 

There’s a lot more to this, I think, however, that he could give heed to, particularly in the area of liability, privacy, and online reputation, as in many other books I have reviewed here. There are inherent dangers when one individual has “too much broadcast reach”, that have to do with accountability in ways that are outside of bottom-line and corporate restructuring concerns. Ironically, some of the platitudes originally used to preserve centralization were based on vague notions that decentralized expression could present its own kind of public risk.  History has proved that correct. Furthermore, the transformative nature of our communications culture has reached all the way into the idea of individual self-definition, as compared to being part of a group. That is, social networking (particularly Facebook) has undermines the personal anonymity that used to seem essential to freedom, even free speech.  If an individual (as Mark Zuckerberg and perhaps Eric Schmidt maintain) should have only one identity, arguably one person shouldn’t be permitted to perform too many functions publicly. Maybe that’s the next battle.

Here’s Steve Paikin’s interview with Wu.


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