Review of The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires by Tim Wu (Knopf, 2010)
In The Master Switch, Tim Wu draws on Schumpeterian theory of creative destruction and Christensen's notion of disruptive innovations to examine the rise and fall of information empires. He makes the argument that various forms of information industries - the telegraph, the telephone, movie-making, radio, and television have been subject to what he terms the ‘Cycle’, wherein a disruptive new technology challenges an established hegemonic order, as with telephone confronting the wireless, slowly replacing it and itself becoming hegemonic. Over time, dozens or hundreds of new disruptive players jostle for market position moving quite rapidly to a single monopoly player or cartel that dominates the landscape. Eventually this monopoly player or cartel is challenged by a new disruption and is toppled, or resists by using the power of the state to stifle what is an inevitable change. Providing a detailed genealogy of the industries already listed, and how they were initiated and developed through various power struggles and were eventually toppled or mutated, Wu asks whether the present period of disruption through internet technologies will follow the same Cycle pattern and become dominated by a handful of players who control the ‘master switch’, or will it be different given net neutrality and the global rather than national scale of operations? He discusses this by counter-posing Apple with Google, who have very different business models, with the former seeking to replicate the Cycle. The analysis is compellingly presented through a very engaging and accessible narrative. I have two critiques. The first is that the story told is highly American-centric and whilst his model of the ‘Cycle’ works in the US, it is not clear how applicable it is with respect to different contexts. The second is that, the conclusion is a little ambiguous as to whether the Cycle will be repeated or resisted in the present age. Otherwise, this is an excellent read.