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The Master Switch by Tim Wu (Book Review of the Week-ish)

Columbia professor and policy advocate Tim Wu wants you to know what you’re up against. And with “The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires”—his excellent, important book covering corporate control of information—Wu outlines how governments and conglomerates collaborate to enact gates and tolls around any information channel, from the age of telegraphs through to the current Information Superhighway that is the Internet.

So why am I reviewing a a book from 2011? And what makes this title that’s been sitting on my Kindle for over a year worth reading today?


Beginning with the economist Joseph Schumpeter’s notion of creative destruction, Wu outlines a clear and compelling outline of how information empires—think businesses like AT&T, Hollywood film studios, and Google—eventually close previously “open” networks to increase profits and constrain competition.

Now, first, remember that I’m a little conflicted here. My own business depends on intellectual property and extracting a fee from information. But it’s all sorts of hubris for me to suggest I’m the type of business Wu worries about. In fact, Wu seems somewhat disinterested in who wins or loses in business terms.

Instead, Wu has bigger fish to fry. As he asserts after a few dozen pages of setup,

“In an information industry, the cost of monopoly must not be measured in dollars alone, but also in its effect on the economy of ideas and images, the restraint of which can ultimately amount to censorship.”

What appears at first a history of business and economic principles quickly underscores the real cost to consumers: the loss of freedoms, in particular, the freedom of speech. Not surprising, really, when you consider Wu coined the term “net neutrality.”

Recent signs suggest steps towards closing the open Internet in ways very likely to keep Wu up at night: the Washington Post recently accused Comcast of “…acting more and more like a monopolist” in how it prices access to the Web, while the W3C, the body controlling the open standards behind the World Wide Web, is planning to include digital rights management (DRM) technologies in its latest draft specifications. And I’m not going anywhere near the Edward Snowden/NSA stuff here, but draw your own conclusions.

“The Master Switch” is not a light, breezy read. But it’s an important one nonetheless. If your business depends on information and understanding how gatekeepers emerge between you and your customers (spoiler alert: it does), it’s well worth a read. And if your ability to speak out against injustice, intolerance, or oppression depends upon those same gatekeepers (again, it does), the book takes on added importance. Give it a look when you get the chance. You’ll be glad you did.

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You might also enjoy some of our past book reviews, including:

Tim Peter is the founder and president of Tim Peter & Associates. You can learn more about our company's strategy and digital marketing consulting services here or about Tim here.

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