Summary of The Master Switch

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Great advances in communications technology start new industries, but the history of such breakthroughs shows a cycle of fragmentation, concentration, more breakthroughs and a splintered set of small companies. The web may defy this cycle, whether control of the web consolidates or remain diffuse. Historic patterns suggest that today’s major web companies may become part of larger media empires, centralizing control of online content. Columbia professor Tim Wu offers a rich saga tracing the evolution of telecom industries, technology and regulations and explains what these patterns portend. 

About the Author

Tim Wu is an author, a policy advocate and a professor at Columbia University.



A Cycle of Revolution, Fragmentation and Consolidation

Revolutions in communications technology encourage the formation of new companies that outperform old businesses based on outdated technologies. The fragmented frenzy of these revolutions fades as dominant companies buy or bankrupt smaller competitors. The diffuse nature of the Internet is the antithesis of centralized control, public or private, but if history is a useful guide, disjointed control of online content may yield to more concentrated power over the Internet. After all, the commercial forces of consolidation and concentration have prevailed in every communications revolution since the invention of the telephone in the late 1800s.

The Birth of the Bell System

The telephone, like subsequent major advances in communications technology, had several contemporaneous inventors. On the same day in 1876, inventors Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray both registered for US patent protection for telephones they developed separately. Professor Bell had scant interest in running a business, but access to capital ultimately set him apart from other inventors. In 1877, he and a group of investors founded...

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    T. D. 4 years ago
    Wu tires to predict terrible consequences, and he is of course off the mark, prediction being hard, especially about the future, and thus seems to disprove his argument, even when the actual consequences are even worse. He might be better off picking up the snake by the other end, and considering origins rather than results. Who owns my packets? I do, got my name on them.
    Where is the Internet? On public property. 90% of outside plant is on municipal property. The Internet is common carriage on public rights of way.