Tim Wu, author of The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires, makes an ambitious attempt to determine if there's something unique about the information age and, particularly, the nature of the Internet. Wu, a journalist and professor at Columbia University, takes on the question of what happens to information empires and why we should care about it at all. The talk of late about net neutrality and, in recent years, of warrantless domestic wiretaps might get one's attention -- or maybe just the notion that adult entertainment might vanish entirely from the Internet.
|1932 movie poster for 'Three on a Match'|
In many ways, Wu's narrative about the open-then-closed cycle of information empires is to set up the fundamental questions that face us now: Is the Internet fundamentally different and why should we care? To the first question, Wu clearly outlines that the Internet's structure -- a network of networks that is designed to go around most disruptions and across most platforms and technologies -- tends to resist a complete monopoly. In other words, if Comcast throttles my Netflix, I'll switch to some other provider -- by satellite, for instance. The second part of the question, about caring, is answered through an examination of Apple and its ubiquitous iPod, iPhone, and iPad. Wu doesn't call these devices computers, but rather, "information appliances," which exist inside a walled garden of proprietary monopolies (Apple and AT&T), as opposed to hardware, software, and content with more open standards (Google and Verizon). Ultimately, Wu comes down on the side of openness -- if in the broader political sense of freedom of speech. If information industries are largely closed and in the hands of a few, access to channels of communication will be limited and our own activities are much more likely to be monitored.
Whatever opinions one might have on the future of the Internet -- "No, this time it's really really going to be different!" -- Wu's book is a worthwhile read for the stories it tells about the development of 20th century media, and the serious issues it raises for how we will live and work in the information economy -- as digital artisans and connoisseurs or mere consumers of the same old bits and bytes as everyone else on the planet.
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