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Publisher's Summary

A secret history of the industrial wars behind the rise and fall of the 20th century's great information empires - Hollywood, the broadcast networks, and AT&T - asking one big question: Could history repeat itself, with one giant entity taking control of American information?
Most consider the Internet Age to be a moment of unprecedented freedom in communications and culture. But as Tim Wu shows, each major new medium, from telephone to cable, arrived on a similar wave of idealistic optimism only to become, eventually, the object of industrial consolidation profoundly affecting how Americans communicate. Every once-free and open technology was in time centralized and closed, a huge corporate power taking control of the master switch. Today, as a similar struggle looms over the Internet, increasingly the pipeline of all other media, the stakes have never been higher. To be decided: who gets heard, and what kind of country we live in. Part industrial exposé, part meditation on the nature of freedom of expression, part battle cry to save the Internet's best features, The Master Switch brings to light a crucial drama rife with indelible characters and stories, heretofore played out over decades in the shadows of our national life.
©2010 Tim Wu (P)2010 Audible, Inc
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Critic Reviews

“Wu’s engaging narrative and remarkable historical detail make this a compelling and galvanizing cry for sanity - and necessary deregulation - in the information age.” ( Publishers Weekly)
“This is an essential look at the directions that personal computing could be headed depending on which policies and worldviews come to dominate control over the Internet.” ( Booklist)
"There’s a sharp insight and a surprising fact on nearly every page of Wu’s masterful survey. Above all, Wu shows that each new communications technology spawns the same old quest for power." ( The Boston Globe)
"A brilliant exploration of the oscillations of communications technologies between 'open' and 'closed' from the early days of the telephone up through Hollywood and broadcast television up to the Internet era." (
"My pick for economics book of the year." (Ezra Klein, The Washington Post)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful
5 out of 5 stars
By Roy on 11-12-10

Great Read

Tim Wu, a scholar of technology, innovation and cyberspace has produced a very informative book which is timely in many ways. He relates in detail how communication technology has been guided by the profit motive and political actions during the last century and the current era. I have heard some of these stories before, but not in this context. If you are interested in or concerned about the direction that electronic media is taking in the US, this is the book for you. It is not light reading, but well worth the time spent. I found the first few chapters a little tedious largely because they were not covering what I was I thought were my interests. After a while, however, I realized what Wu was saying and by the last third of the book he had "my earlobes in his hands." I would, however, recommend that you listen to the Audible recording of Wu's earlier book, "Who Controls the Internet?", first for background. This book will fill in the details and more. Well written and accessible. Marc Vietor's narration is excellent.

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31 of 32 people found this review helpful

4 out of 5 stars
By Neil on 10-24-11

Very interesting history, biased conclusions

I've never heard of Tim Wu before reading this, but he really knows his stuff as far as media/technology history goes. The best parts of this book were examining this history of prior "cutting edge" media (Telephony, Radio, Television) through the eyes of what we'd now call the "Open Source" vs. "Closed System" dynamic. Fascinating and informative. I found I couldn't put it down.

HOWEVER -- the last hour turns into a very biased analysis of what's going on today.

I take his larger point -- that the Internet's open-ended structure which we tend to think of as permanent is not, in fact, unassailable. I think it's a well-supported point and he makes some interesting conjectures as to how that structure could change.

But I feel he makes a serious error in his analysis.

Specifically, he reduces "fate of the communications future" to a simple dynamic: Apple vs Google, with his preference clearly falling on Team Google. I think this a fairly short-sighted, narrow interpretation. Unlike the Bell of RCA companies of yesteryear, *neither* company owns anything that could not be replaced through a process of consumer demand. (Neither owns the "wires") Apple is not the "too big to fail" monopoly that Bell was -- it just plays nicely with the companies that are. So while these two companies clearly have different ideologies vis-a-vis the internet, BOTH could be undone by a vertically integrated powerhouse!

Further, as another reviewer points out, it assumes an American dominance of the communications future. And, like it or not, the Internet has wrested that ability from any one nation. Let's assume that "Comcast-NBC-Verizon-Apple-Intel-Universal" (Hypothetical Conglomerate) were to make the internet "controlled" in the USA. This would be such an economic disadvantage the the US, that new pioneer firms would pop up in more free information markets. This will always serve as a disincentive towards central control.

My griping aside -- I can heartily recommend this book. Take some of the analyses with a grain of salt and make up your own mind -- but don't skip this book simply because it draws some dodgy conclusions. You'll learn a lot and it will make you think.

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25 of 27 people found this review helpful

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful
5 out of 5 stars
By Mick Conroy on 02-03-15

Brilliant technological non fiction

A well written account of the similarities between 19th and 20th century cycles of communication technology. Never dry, this is a story of interesting inventors and the villains they came up against or became. Recommended for anyone who wants to understand the Internet in the context of the last 150 years. Perfectly narrated.

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5 out of 5 stars
By Brendan McCarthy on 01-30-15


Complex, inaccessible ideas expertly articulated and illustrated. A wonderful book, highly recommended. Well worth reading.

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