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.