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Will Someone Find and Control the Master Switch of the Internet?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

A recent  (2010) book by Tim Wu titled The Master Switch: the Rise and Fall of Information Empires is a sweeping, industrial history of the succession of new media technologies that rose to prominence in America in the 20th century: radio, the telephone, television, film and, of course, the Internet. It is an American story with global ramifications because of the powerful global influence of American information empires.

Wu's story is both arresting and depressing.

The story is arresting because it is fascinating to learn how the media ecosystem we are experiencing evolved, what struggles took place, which battles were lost and won, and to encounter the major personages that burst through the narrative one after the other. The story is depressing because Wu's thesis - and he backs it up with evidence -- is this: each new information technology comes unto the scene as a disruptive innovation that promises democratic access to information by the masses and the creation of brave new worlds; yet, inevitably, consolidation occurs, naive idealists are crushed by ruthless empire-builders, and a monopoly or cartel takes over. The stories of radio and film moved me the most. In all these stories, those who lost out really lost out, and some committed suicide or drank themselves to death. The relentless search for the master switch of information flows takes no prisoners.

You expect corporate titans and their impatient shareholders to be greedy. Part of what makes Wu's book so compelling is the interplay of regulation and politics. Regulators and politicians make the rules that sometimes allow democratic access to new media, but they are also the ones who aid and abet empire-builders.  Some of the collusive deals you learn about in this book are crooked beyond belief. The good news is that human ingenuity can never be blocked; for, as soon as consolidation occurs a disruptive innovation shows up to make everything interesting once again. Until the next empire-builder finds a way to control it.

Now, it is tempting to think that the Internet is the ultimate disruptive innovation, that no one, no cartel even, can find and control its master-switch. Read Tim Wu and you won't be so sure. Giants have emerged once again. They are forming alliances; they are fully engaged in an epic struggle. Think Apple, Google, Microsoft and the others. Who knows where all this is going. The one thing that is clear is this: developing countries are not likely to shape the outcome of the struggle; they are more likely to be takers of outcomes, whatever they are, and sufferers of collateral damage.

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Submitted by Peter on
Thanks for this interesting contribution, Sina. Particularly the internet has brought a new level to the game, and would think paradigm change - with pros and cons, and also uncertainties of where the journey is going. I find that the issue of global privacy and intellectual property rights is particularly challenging. As much as it is difficult to keep up with the rapidly evolving technologies, international law has not been able to keep up or even digest issues related to new technologies - think e.g. of youtube. With all its benefits (e.g. looking for/finding old songs one has not heard for maybe 20 years, and barely remembers their names), there come big challenges: how can e.g. an individual ensure his privacy right when somebody/somewhere puts up a private video that shows that person (against the will of that person) - especially if the server from where this is uploaded is under another jurisdiction? Questions like that have to my knowledge not really been addressed by law researchers yet, and the question is to what extent they will ever be able to be addressed. Traditionally, media essentially served as a gate-keeper to control what is distributed to the public domain - this had the known flaws (e.g. control of information by specific interest groups, exclusion of others), but also a certain degree of accountability and identification of sources. We now see that - for the good part - a true democratization is taking place that empowers individuals and gives those a voice that otherwise would not be heard. However, on the flip side, there is no quality control, and governance involved in what is being uploaded. What could be done against that challenge - a global internet governance body, perhaps a special UN agency? If so, how could it be governed - what would be the tools of such governing body? Not easy questions to address - what is your take on this, Sina?

Governments cannot be trusted to regulate content; and the UN will find it too vast a task, even if we could it get the authority to even attempt to do so. We have to fall back on discriminating consumers, I'm afraid. That is why calls for media literacy for citizens-- and attempts to provide such ---are spreading.

Submitted by Dr. Kole Odutola on
Wu's story puts together what we were forced to learn in media studies classes. We learned about the history of media institutions in America and came to some painful conclusions. I remember the anger I felt when I read about the congress man who sold out and crippled the struggle of the progressives to have a different kind of media America has today. If only Wu or Sina factored in the meaning and implication of the term ecology, they conclusion would have been a little different. In ecology we talk about early colonizers of habitats and 'ecoseres' point to how more complex groups take over from from the simple ones. As it is in nature, so it shall be in human organizations. Rge question I keep asking is what can we the early, simple, unicellular, folks survive in these media forests or jungle if you like. How can we keep our spaces? How can thinking outside of the box help create and sustain alternative media platforms? Does Wu or Sina have answers? Kole

I agree that human ingenuity has a vital role to play; we can and should always seek to find media spaces to use. Nonetheless, the seemingly inevitable rise of the media behemoths that Tim Wu draws attention to remains a genuine cause for concern.

Submitted by Dr. Kole Odutola on
Yes showing concern is one part of the equation, sowing seeds of change should be the next. I hope people on the margins will still come together to reclaim spaces for self-empowerment. Another utopia? Is this a case of what will be will be?

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