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The Master Switch: quick review... and we should be worried and grateful

My book-a-week resolution fizzled out pretty quickly last year :-(, but fortune favors the optimistic, so I'm trying again this year and off to a reasonable start so far. I wasn't expecting much from Tim Wu's The Master Switch - I had it on my phone only because it was distributed as part of a book club at work -  but wow.

The book is great chronicle of how information industries evolved to have the structure that they have. The author does a really good job describing the technical, economic and policy decisions that led to the growth of some communication and information industries i.e.  the telephone, TV, movies, radio and the Internet. In particular, he paints a very vivid picture of the people and the personalities involved, and how regulation and influence can dramatically change the face of these industries.

If you buy the idea that we can learn from history, the chronicle itself is worth reading, but the analysis he adds around vertical industry structures and the desire to control the complete consumer experience, the economic impact of conglomerate, and how important Net Neutrality is, is very strong too. Highly recommended if you're interested in communication and media. My biggest takeaways from the book:

  • Patters truly do repeat: The pattern in the evolution of each of these technologies and industries has remarkable similarities.
  • People matter, and a lot of them have bad ideas and unscrupulous methods: Each of the most significant changes in these industries were driven by very strong-willed and ambitious people. The methods many of them use to achieve their goals in some cases are just pure evil; in others just ruthless business.
  • No... really unscrupulous methods: Seriously. Read the book for the pure evil examples from the old days of AT&T, and the just sound-but-still-kinda-evil business strategy examples e.g. the delaying of cable, crushing any attempts at innovation in the telephone and movie business to preserve the status quo, and the forcing of TV to mirror the industry structure of radio in the US.
  • Regulation matters just as much: Politics (and lobbying) played as much of a role in determining the companies and technologies that prevailed as technology, creativity and the underlying economics did. That's a scary thought for the technology optimist.
  • Conventional wisdom starts as unconventional: The idea that there was a time that most people in industry and government believed that monopolies were a good thing, and that competition led to unacceptable wastage was very surprising to me.
  • The industry structure that the Internet enables is truly unique: We're very lucky to finally have an information platform that doesn't strongly stack the deck against the new entrants and new technologies. Using public opinion to preserve it is critical.
I disagreed with a couple of minor points in the book, and umm... it could've been a little shorter - hey, I'm on a book-a-week schedule :-) -  but these were small nits.

It also made me realize that broadly speaking we're very lucky to have the tech leaders that we have today but, as a society, need to watch that they don't turn into the put-company-first-and-control-everything that is a very natural place for companies to gravitate to (different, longer post


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