Reviewed: November 2014
Subtitled ‘The Rise and Fall of Information Empires’ Tim Wu’s book is a tour de force history of the four great information technologies of the 20th Century – the telephone, radio/ television, movies, and the internet. The book is both a history and an analysis of these industries. The lessons we can draw from the stories he tells have serious implications for the current struggle over what is now known as ’net neutrality. The individual stories of the technologies themselves are interesting enough in their own right, but what is striking is the common themes of the histories of the telephone, radio and movies. In each case as the new disruptive technologies came into existence and there was a period of free for all, anarchy if you like, in which innovators thrived, anyone could join in, and the cost of entry was minimal.
Then came a period of consolidation, often assisted by government desire to regulate and consolidate. Politicians are notoriously wary of their constituents doing this for themselves, while the bureaucrats who run the regulatory bodies always push for consolidation. After all it's a lot easier to talk to, and come to agreement with, a few large bodies that have a similar culture, than hundreds of small organization filled with fractious non-conformists!
And of course, once you have a monopoly or semi-monopoly situation, it becomes easier to suppress new, disruptive, innovations – the suppression of FM radio in the early 30s by RCA being a classic case. In other cases the leadership of the monopoly involved simply could not conceive of any way of working other than the one currently in use. Thus the officials at AT&T thought the concept of packet switched networks (the basis of the internet) was ‘preposterous’. In fact, so wedded were the AT&T officials to the circuit based network (the AT&T slogan was One company, One system, Universal Service), that they even turned down a US Air Force offer to pay for an experimental packet switched network!
But this isn’t just a technical history. It’s also a social history of the struggle to keep those technologies in the hands of ordinary people, and that is as important as the technical issues, because that is exactly what is happening now in both the internet and the software forums. In the internet the struggle is being waged under the rubric of ’net neutrality, while the software struggle is being waged through patent reform.
Both are important. At the moment anyone can post material onto the net – you don’t require anyone’s permission to do so, or to check what you’ve written before it’s posted. Anyone can write software – all you need is a general purpose computer, usually a desktop PC, and a compiler or a browser, depending on your language of choice. Do I really have to tell you that the politicians and big business would prefer it otherwise?
We are on a cusp when it comes to questions of how the new and currently cheap enabling technologies of computing and the internet will be used in the future, and Tim Wu’s readable and fascinating book is an important chronology and analysis of what happened on previous occasions. We need to understand that and learn its lessons, because those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.