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The Master Switch

The Rise and Fall of Information Empires

By Tim Wu
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  • Contains 9 key ideas
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The Master Switch by Tim Wu

In The Master Switch, author Tim Wu traces the development of information technology such as radio, film and television and illustrates how great innovations always come to be controlled by big corporations. Critically, Wu asks whether the internet will succumb to the same fate, or if its inherent design could help it avoid corporate domination.

Key idea 1 of 9

Phone, radio and film all had a period of “openness” in the early days of the technology.

Throughout history, the lifecycle of information technology has followed a typical progression. A technology starts out being freely accessible, but gradually becomes controlled by a single corporation or cartel.

From open, then, to closed. This progression is so typical that it's been given a name: the cycle.

The development of the telephone exemplifies the cycle. The cycle usually begins in a laboratory, attic or garage where a hobbyist or engineer tries to solve a concrete technical problem.

For the telephone, it began when Alexander Bell rushed to register a patent after tinkering with metal rods tuned to different frequencies. He wanted to convert electrical currents into sound.

By the time Bell's patent expired in 1894, hundreds of independent telephone services had already appeared, which allowed for the “open” phase of the telephone. Everyone could tinker with the new technology.

Radio also experienced an early open phase. Like the telephone, it was pioneered by amateurs and accessible to hobbyists early on. In the 1920s, any group could launch its own local broadcast station.

This openness resulted in a wide variety of broadcasting, with content limited only by the creativity of broadcasters. Some stations played jazz, for instance, while others focused on political issues.

There was also a period of openness in film. In the early twentieth century, American film was controlled by the Edison company, a film cartel that held all the important patents on motion picture technology. By 1909, however, American film theaters started declaring themselves “independent,” and eventually broke up the Edison monopoly.

By 1915, the film industry too opened up, which ushered in an era of creativity. Specialty films that spoke to particular groups or interests, about all sorts of subjects, proliferated.

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