Thursday, March 22, 2012

Who Will Control the Internet's Master Switch?

"Every age thinks it's the modern age, but this one really is". (Tom Stoppard, 1876)

Ever since it's most nascent stages, the Internet has been touted as a game-changer; exceptional; outside of history. Tim Wu directly contradicts those claims in his book, The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires.

Wu's argument is two-fold. First, he asserts that there is an historical cycle characterizing all new information technologies:

  1. Invention leads to Industry

  2. Industry consolidates into Empire (often with State support)

  3. Empire comes under assault; monopoly is broken

  4. The lure of size and scale that led to the original Empire spawns a new generation again.
This cycle, he says, describes what happened with everything from telephone to radio to television to film. Somebody's hobby became somebody else's industry. Most importantly, each new invention progressed from a freely accessible channel to one strictly controlled for reasons of commerce by a single corporation or cartel.


Why is this important? Without delving into fear-mongering or conspiracy theories, Wu highlights repeatedly that information technology is a form of social ordering. In line with the literature on walled gardens and Jonathan Zittrain's seminal book, The Future of the Internet - And How to Stop It, the fear is that the Internet is becoming less free and more controlled for commercial purposes. "Just as you are what you eat, how and what you think depends on what information you are exposed to". In America, we value having a free marketplace of ideas, yet "the shape or even existence of any such marketplace depends far less on our abstract values than on the structure of the communications and culture industries... their structure determines who gets heard".

And that's what this is really about: freedom vs. control.

So through this lens, the second part of Wu's argument is to map out what he sees as the Primary Conflict - between the Open vs. the Closed; between Decentralized vs. Consolidated visions of a proper order.

He spends a good 50 pages or so demonizing Apple for being the embodiment of The Centralizers. This group - including examples of AT&T, Hollywood, and the Apple of Steve Jobs - seeks to design everything for consumption. In order to provide "the Best of Everything", they push a type of cultural surrogacy, mass conformity, and a partnership mentality.

On the other hand, the Openness Movement - including Google, the Internet itself, and the Apple of Steve Wozniak - seeks to design everything for creation. They offer less polish and perfection, but more choice, and seek to promote individual expression and minimize the "need for permission".

I couldn't agree more. The Internet is a type of mass filter, and who gets to decide in what ways information will and won't be accessible is extremely consequential, and should indeed be placed in the context of social control. As Wu states, "before any question of free speech comes the question of 'who controls the Master Switch'".

This is one of the most important conflicts of our time.


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