"The Master Switch" is an intriguing history of radio, telephone, cinema and
television business in the USA (note: "in the USA", which is not clearly
stated in the introduction).
The central theme of the book is the "oscillation of information industries
between open and closed", a recurring pattern that he finds across those
four industries... and that he projects into the age of the Internet.
The pattern looks like this: scientific innovation creates an information
technology, the information technology opens a new market, an industry is
created to serve that market, a monopoly eventually comes to control that
market and therefore the flow of information.
Within a few decades of their invention, in the USA the telegraph was dominated by Western Union, the telephone was dominated by AT&T (back then still called Bell), the radio by NBC and CBS, cinema by the Hollywood studios. In the USA the consolidation of information empires took place relatively quickly.
Wu begins with some theoretical notions. Clayton Christensen distinguished between sustaining innovations (innovations that improve existing products) and disruptive innovations (innovations that kill an existing product and create a completely new one). For example, there were many "sustaining innovations" for the telegraph, but the telephone was a disruptive innovation that would rapidly kill the telegraph. Joseph Schumpeter argued that innovation is the main driver of economic growth He changed the concept of competition: competition among companies that manufacture pretty much the same kind of product is not terribly useful, but competition between companies that innovate (create new kinds of products, or create new kinds of organizations) is the one that really matters. Again, this kind of competition is disruptive: it doesn't simply weaken the competition, it destroys it. Later, Wu also introduces Richard Nelson's and Sidney Winter's notion of "evolutionary" innovation, basically an application of Darwin's theory of variation and selection to the field of innovation: innovation often comes from trial and error, from the environment (in this case the market) selecting the winners (the new technologies) out of a vast portfolio of variations of the existing technologies.
The chapters on radio, television and cinema are enlightning.
Wu is interested in what happened to cinema as an information medium.
In 1934 Daniel Lord, a Catholic priest, wrote a Production Code to enforce
morality on Hollywood films. The reasons why this code was adopted by
Hollywood are complex, but during the Great Depression moral pressures
tended to work on Washington. Furthermore, there were numerous
psychological studies showing that cinema was having a bad influence on young
Lord's commandements started with: "No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it".
The main target of the censors was "obscenity", a vague word that Lord defined
in broad terms.
Tim Wu points out the irony that it was "a Catholic movement designed to discipline Jewish producers on behalf of a Protestant majority".
When it comes to computers and the Internet, Wu's book is less comprehensive.
Surprisingly, Wu ignores the first 40 years of the computing industry and begins
his story with Apple, then jumpting straight to Google.
That is a pity because there would be much to say about how IBM became a
monopoly in mainframe computers, and how the government forced IBM to unbundle
software from the hardware, a decision that singlehandedly created the software
industry. In 1998 the government did something similar to Microsoft, forcing
Microsoft (at the time the largest software company in the world) to unbundle
Internet Explorer, a decision that singlehandedly created the open world
in which Google, Facebook and thousands of Internet services would soon thrive.
Given what a marvelous job he did with these industries, it is deplorable that Wu omits records, newspapers, magazines, books and computers (which represented the vast majority of information in the 20th century) from a survey of 20th century media. It is also a pity that he has focused only on the USA (neither the radio nor the telephone were invented in the USA, nor was cinema nor was the World Wide Web) with only marginal comments on how foreign dictators exploited this or that invention for their political fortunes but virtually no information on what the industry did with those inventions in other countries. By the end of the book, one has to wonder whether this is an analysis of the media or an analysis of the USA.
An important point that he makes early on in the book and should make every historian pause is that large-scale industrial wars within a country may contribute more to the character of that country than its military wars against other countries.