An edited version of this interview originally aired on Spark (9/1/11). The full-length version was available through the Spark in the Summer podcast (10/7/11).
It's a familiar story. A new way of sharing information is introduced to the world — telephone, radio, and television — and each system begins as an idealistic, open and innovative platform. But it wasn't long before each of these systems shifted to closed down, oligopolistic or monopolistic entities. And for Tim Wu, thinker, lawyer and author of The Master Switch, it's not a matter of whether this will happen to the internet — it's a matter of when.
Wu refers to this process as "the cycle" in his new book. The cycle, he explained to Spark host Nora Young in a recent interview, is an "alternation between openness and entrepreneurialism and competition towards consolidation, integration and monopoly or domination in an industry."
The best example of this shift is radio in the 1920s. This "miracle of science" was expected to revolutionize information, end war, fix the political system and change how we do business. Sound familiar? It should — people said the same thing about the internet in the 1990s.
However, one specific difference between the internet and all the other information advances that came before it: even in its infancy, the internet was an open, democratic space. Its founders "were really just trying to solve a problem. In that solution they did do something ingenious," Wu explained. "They didn't have the power to tell people what to do. They just said 'please join us.'"
So what will happen to the future of the internet? It has been fairly democratic for the past two decades, but familiar trends are emerging. Large corporations are already dominating single aspects of the online world: Facebook for social networking, Google for searching and Amazon for shopping. For Wu, this signals the beginning of the end.
"If history is going to repeat itself," Wu said. "We are in the beginning of the closing."
The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires
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"As Wu's sweeping history shows, each of the new media of the twentieth century — radio, telephone, television, and film — was born free and open. Each invited unrestricted use and enterprising experiment until some would-be mogul battled his way to total domination. Here are stories of an uncommon will to power, the power over information: Adolph Zukor, who took a technology once used as commonly as YouTube is today and made it the exclusive prerogative of a kingdom called Hollywood...NBC's founder, David Sarnoff, who, to save his broadcast empire from disruptive visionaries, bullied one inventor (of electronic television) into alcoholic despair and another (this one of FM radio, and his boyhood friend) into suicide...And foremost, Theodore Vail, founder of the Bell System, the greatest information empire of all time, and a capitalist whose faith in Soviet-style central planning set the course of every information industry thereafter..."
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