On The Master Switch

I recently finished reading The Master Switch – The Rise and Fall of Information Empires – by Tim Wu.

The main premise of the book, as stated by the author: “To understand the forces threatening the Internet as we know it, we must understand how information technologies give rise to industries, and industries to empires. In other words, we must understand the nature of the Cycle, its dynamics, what makes it go, and what can arrest it. As with any economic theory, there are no laboratories but past experience…The pattern is distinctive. Every few decades, a new communications technology appears, bright with promise and possibility. It inspires a generation to dream of a better society, new forms of expression, alternative types of journalism. Yet each new technology eventually reveals its flaws, kinks, and limitations. For consumers, the technical novelty can wear thin, giving way to various kinds of dissatisfaction with the quality of content (which may tend toward the chaotic and the vulgar) and the reliability or security of service. From industry’s perspective, the invention may inspire other dissatisfactions: a threat to the revenues of existing information channels that the new technology makes less essential, if not obsolete; a difficulty commoditizing (i.e., making a salable product out of) the technology’s potential; or too much variation in standards or protocols of use to allow one to market a high quality product that will answer the consumers’ dissatisfactions. “

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

1- “In fact, the place we find ourselves now is a place we have been before, albeit in different guise. And so understanding how the fate of the technologies of the twentieth century developed is important in making the twenty-first century better.”

2- “Schumpeter’s cycle of industrial life and death is an inspiration for this book. His thesis is that in the natural course of things, the new only rarely supplements the old; it usually destroys it. The old, however, doesn’t, as it were, simply give up but rather tries to forestall death or co-opt its usurper—a la Kronos—with important implications.”

3- “We have seen how important outsiders are to industrial innovation: they alone have the will or interest to challenge the dominant industry. And we have seen the power of considerations beyond wealth or security—factors outside the motivations of the ideal rational economic actor—in inspiring action to transform an industry.”

4- “Here, then, we come to the second weakness that afflicts centralized systems of innovation: the necessity, by definition, of placing all control in a few hands. This is not to say that doing so holds no benefit. To be sure, there is less “waste”: instead of ten companies competing to develop a better telephone—reinventing the wheel, as it were, every time—society’s resources can be synchronized in their pursuit of the common goal. There is no duplication of research, with many laboratories chasing the same invention. Yet if all resources for solving any problem are directed by a single, centralized intelligence. that mastermind has to be right in predicting the future if innovation is to proceed effectively. And that’s the problem: monopoly presumes a prescience that humans are seldom capable of. “

5- “For the combined forces of a dominant industry and the federal government can arrest the Cycle’s otherwise inexorable progress, intimating for the prevailing order something like Kronos’s fantasy of perpetual rule.”

6- “Whether sanctioned by the state or not, monopolies represent a special kind of industrial concentration, with special consequences flowing from their dissolution. Often the useful results are delayed and unpredictable, while the negative outcomes are immediate and obvious.”

7- “But what prevented monopoly and all centralized systems from realizing these efficiencies, in Hayek’s view, was a fundamental failure to appreciate human limitations. With perfect information, a central planner could effect the best of all possible arrangements, but no such planner could ever hope to have all the relevant facts of local, regional, and national conditions to arrive at an adequately informed, or right, decision.”

8- “As an object lesson in the way information networks can develop, it gives us occasion to consider what we truly want from our news and entertainment, as opposed to what sort of content we might be prepared to sustain, however passively, with our fleeting attention. For cable offered choices really only in the commercial range—(-enough, however, to suggest what a truly open medium could deliver to the nation, for better and for worse.”

9- “With its hefty capitalization, it offers the information industries financial stability, and potentially a great freedom to explore risky projects. Yet despite that promise, the conglomerate can as easily become a hidebound, stifling master, obsessed with maximizing the revenue potential and flow of its intellectual property. At its worst, such an organization can carry the logic of mass cultural production to any extreme of banality as long as it seems financially feasible.”

10- “For the information industries that now account for an ever increasing share of American and world GDP, the coming decade will be given over to a mighty effort to seize territory, to bolt the competition from its habitat. But this is not a case of one pack of wolves chasing another out of a prime valley. While it may sound fanciful, the contest in question is more like one of polar bears batting lions for domination of the world. Each animal, insuperably dominant in its natural element—the polar bear on ice and snow, the lion on the open plains—will undertake a land grab where it has no natural business being. The only practicable strategy will be a campaign of climate change, the polar bears seeking to cover as much of the world with snow as they can, while the lion tries to coax a savannah from the edges of a tundra. Sounds absurd, but for these mighty predators, it’s simply the law of nature.”

11- “The democratization of technological power has made the shape of the future hard to know, even for the best informed. The individual holds more power than at any time in the past century, and literally in the palm of his hand. Whether or not he can hold on to it is another matter.”

12- “The American political system is designed to prevent abuses of pubic power. But where it has proved less vigilant is in those areas where the political meets the economic realm, where private economic power comes to bear on public life…We like to believe that our safeguards against concentrated political power will ultimately protect us from the consequences of accumulated economic power. But this hasn’t always been so.”

13- “For history shows that in seeking to prevent the exercise of abusive power in the information industries, government is among those actors whose power must be restrained. Government may function as a check on abusive power, but government itself is a power that must be checked. What I propose is not a regulatory approach but rather a constitutional approach to the information economy. By that I mean a regime whose goal is to constrain and divide all power that derives from the control of information.”

14- “Let us. then, not fail to protect ourselves from the will of those who might seek domination of those resources we cannot do without. If we do not take this moment to secure our sovereignty over the choices that our information age has allowed us to enjoy, we cannot reasonably blame its loss on those who are free to enrich themselves by taking it from us in a manner history has foretold.”

Regards,

Omar Halabieh

The Master Switch

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