The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires

Milton Mueller (Syracuse University School of Information Studies, Syracuse, New York, USA)


ISSN: 1463-6697

Article publication date: 16 August 2011




Mueller, M. (2011), "The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires", info, Vol. 13 No. 5, pp. 86-87.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Has Tim Wu conquered the cycle?

Tim Wu, a law professor at New York's Columbia University, is the man who popularized the term “network neutrality.” In The Master Switch, he provides a lucid, stimulating and easy‐to‐read romp through the history of US communication industries – or, as he puts it more colorfully in the subtitle, The Rise and Fall of Information Empires. The title comes from a pungent quotation from Fred Friendly, where “master switch” refers to the ultimate form of gatekeeping or access control.

In many ways, The Master Switch fills a valuable niche in the literature on communication‐information policy. No other book that I know of takes us so effortlessly through 150 years of change and equilibrium in the telecommunication, media and information industries with an eye for the entertaining anecdote and the enlivening detail. But the book is also a big disappointment. Ultimately, it fails to deliver conceptual and analytical insights commensurate with its grand scope. This failure does not become fully apparent until the last chapter, which makes the letdown all the more jarring.

Wu's historical narrative is held together by the concept of “the Cycle.” The Cycle refers to “the oscillation of information industries between open and closed,” their movement from “somebody's hobby to somebody's industry; […] from a freely accessible channel to one strictly controlled by a single corporation or cartel […]” (p. 6). He traces the cycle's operationthrough telegraph, telephony, radio, film, television, cable TV, media conglomerates and the internet.

Wu's elaboration of the Cycle is intriguing but under‐conceptualized. As far as I can tell, Wu does not have a systematic explanation or theory as to what drives it. Do we get more controlled, closed, concentrated information empires because of some special, inherent economic characteristics of information industries or because of bad policy decisions at critical junctures? His book could be used to give both answers. Is the cycle inevitable, or is it something that we can shape and control through public intervention? While Wu emphasizes the urgency of that question, he fails, as far as I can tell, to seriously engage with it. Is the dominance of past empires disrupted because of technological change, sluggishness and inertia, or laws and policies? Wu does not really engage with those deeper questions at an abstract level. While he writes with the keen eye of someone practiced in antitrust and communications law and policy, his narratives tend to emphasize the ambitions, alliances and decisions of powerful men, as opposed to market forces, economies of scale and scope, institutional arrangements or technological capabilities.

The Master Switch does a great job of reminding us that information‐communication industries that seem limitless and open in their emergent phases routinely consolidate and become more controlled. Looming in the background of any such discourse is, of course, the future of the Internet. Wu is keenly aware of this, too. But here is where Wu's lack of conceptual work limits the relevance of his conclusions. He seems to want to assert that we can conquer the Cycle if the government intervenes in just the right way (even though most of his historical narrative suggests otherwise). Yet antitrust law is dismissed as an “ad hoc way of dealing with concentrations of industrial power” that is dangerously inadequate. He rejects a “narrow economic approach” because he argues (weakly) that information industries are “special” and cannot be treated in the same way as oil and aluminum. And, fortunately, he rejects nationalization or governmental takeovers of industries, because he recognizes that “government itself is a force that must be checked” (p. 304).

As a rather sketchy solution, Wu advances what he calls “the separation principle.” This is a constitutional rather than regulatory approach that would require maintaining “a salutary distance between each of the major functions or layers in the information economy” (p. 304). These major functions are described, vaguely, as content/information, the network infrastructure, and the tools or venues of access. It is pretty evident to anyone involved in the details of regulatory battles over the internet and communications that these are not bright lines and would lead to massive amounts of haggling, discretion and blurring. A regulator or government that has to make these calls would have a lot of power and would no doubt be heavily influenced by the interest groups involved, so I do not see how this gets us out of the Cycle. Wu emphasizes most strongly the need to build thick walls between the creation of information and its dissemination. But he spends only about five pages of this 320‐page tome elaborating on the separations concept.

As a conceptual exercise it is interesting to try to apply the separations principle to an entity like Google. I myself would not know whether to characterize it as a creator or disseminator of information. While Google clearly does not hold a major position in network infrastructure (yet), it does straddle the tools of access (with its Android handsets) and it has acquired extensive fiber optic transmission facilities, which might be considered both a wise defensive move to counter potential discrimination by the telecom oligopolists, and as an addition to competition and diversity. While one can sympathize with the Jeffersonian intent of Wu's call for separation and his opposition to concentration, The Master Switch lacks the conceptual foundations to provide much guidance for future communication policy makers.

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