Tim Wu's The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires is as fascinating, wide-ranging, and, ultimately, inspiring book about communications policy and the information industries as you could hope to find. This is, of course, no surprise: Wu is one of America's great information policy scholars and communicators, probably best known for coining the term "Net Neutrality" (like many great Americans, Tim is, in fact, Canadian -- we attended the same elementary school in Toronto, where we enthusiastically traded Apple ][+ software and killed each others' D&D characters).
Wu's great strength is in the breadth of his scholarship and in his ability to use humor, clear language, and innovative arguments to connect diverse ideas. Thus in Master Switch, we have a brilliant explanation and history of what Wu calls "the Cycle," through which information industries rise, consolidate, monopolize, capture governments, force out competitors, and, eventually, fragment into something less grandiose, less perfect, but more vibrant, open, and innovative.
Wu connects the industrial and informational monopolies of AT&T, the film trust, the exhibitors monopoly, the radio monopoly, the fight over FM, the censorship of the Hays Code for film-makers, the liberation of the Hayes Code for operating modems, the dashed hopes for a diverse and vibrant cable TV landscape, and, ultimately, the invention of the Internet. On the way, he makes a convincing case that information industries are different -- the basis for every political revolution, every genocide, a "claim that can't be made of orange juice, heating oil, running shoes, or dozens of other industries."
The uniqueness of communications as an industry means that regulation and markets fail more often around them, and that the failures are worse. Read the rest