The Master Switch, from Tim Wu, is a gripping read about technology, communication and by extension, about technology in education. It’s not focused on the latest technology and how it is supposed to revolutionise education. In contrary, it takes a look back at the times when technologies such as the telephone, AM and FM radio and television were the latest technologies in town. Why would the Internet fare differently as its predecessors?
|AT&T President Theodore Vail (with telephone) joined the opening ceremony for the first transcontinental telephone line from his home in Jekyll Island, Ga. With Vail (L to R): Architects Welles Bosworth and Samuel Trowbridge, banker J. P. Morgan Jr., and businessman William Rockefeller. Courtesy, AT&T, http://www.hightechhistory.com
Cult of the amateur
Wu detects a recurring pattern in how new communication technologies integrate into society. First, they disrupt the current order, breaking down monopolies and crushing dominant corporations, like Western Union was beaten by the rising Bell Company. The result is a period of openness, creativity and experimentation, characterised by a ‘cult of the amateur’. Unfortunately, this period doesn’t last long, as a few companies consolidate ever larger parts of the market and establish monopolies. These can be vertical – the same company controls all the steps in the production process, for example from making movies to the distribution in theaters – or horizontal – one company controls one sector, such as all the theaters. High barriers to market entry are erected and a period of closeness takes hold until a new disruptive technology starts the process again. This cycle is not a scientific law though and Wu describes how corporate firepower (in case of the radio industry) and government policy (ultimately in the case of the Bell monopoly) can suppress the slow-moving cyclic movement.
Net NeutralityThe book showed me that the Web 2.0phase of the Internet is neither the only possible way the Internet works, neither will it likely stay that way. Web 3.0 is used to describe the Semantic Web, but in the future we may refer to Web 4.0 as a closed Web. The current openness of the internet is threatened from different sides. So could the principle of net neutrality be broken. Net neutrality refers to one of the core ideas of the Internet and implies a network that ‘treats all it carries equally, indifferent to the nature of the content or the identity of the user.’ Internet providers (ISPs) could prefer certain (higher paying) clients or give priority to traffic to (friendly) websites. Second, companies as Facebook and Apple are building their own ecosystem within the Web, with access and content controlled by them, abusing their power to become a ‘switch of necessity’. Wu highlights the cosy relationship between Apple, the entertainment industry – which sees the prospect on steady revenues thanks to Apple’s closed devices – and internet providers such as AT&T, which get exclusive rights for Apple’s devices.
Google’s position is portrayed as the opposite to Apple in its adherence to openness. Wu ascribes this openness to a lack of vertical integration. Google hardly possesses any content or hardware. Its search algorithms are its most precious asset. Not having any content to sell makes that Google doesn’t need to give priority to some kinds of content, making it a ‘switch of choice‘. Google’s engine tends to equalise giant and one-man retailers, returning McDonalds and McSpotlight within the same search page. This lack of vertical integration leaves it vulnerable as well, as network or content providers could decide to leave Google for what it is. The recent takeover of Motorola Mobility by Google could be a – worrying – venture away from this logic towards a future of more vertical integration by Google as well. This NY Times article on talks between Google and Verizon indicate that net neutrality may well come under pressure.
Wu argues that the cycle has already started swinging in the direction towards a more closed Internet. The centralisers foresee a future in which ‘the best content from Hollywood and New York and the telephone and networking power of AT&T will converge on Apple’s appliances, which respond to ever more various human desires.’ It’s a future without ‘spam, faulty apps and junky amateur content’, but also a future where Internet devices are made for consumption and not anymore for producing things. ‘The champions of openness’ propose an untidier world of less polish, less perfection, but with more choice.’
The Master Switch in Education
I believe that the discourse about technology in education experiences the same distinction between these two visions on the internet. Those advocating the characteristics of Web 2.0 (user-generated content, social, content abundance) and who stress its alignment with recent insights about learning, as a social and constructivist activity favour an open future for the internet. Those focussing on the attractive educational apps for the iPad or iPhone favour a closed future for the internet, in which the distinction between consumers and producers is restored.
Wu closes the book with two warnings. First, the Internet is not just one channel of communication, but combines all channels (telephone, television, radio..). As a consequence, ‘the potential power to control is so much greater.’ But, finally, it’s up to us ‘to secure our sovereignty over the choices that our information age has allowed us to enjoy.’ For example, when choosing which phone or tablet to buy…
The Master Switch from Tim Wu is published with Knopf (2011)
* Here is another discussion of the book and here is a fragment of an interview with the author, Tim Wu.
* John Naughton discusses The Master Switch on the occasion of the release of The Artist:
“Wu’s contention is that the history of the telephone, movie, radio and TV industries displays a common feature: they all go through a cycle, in which they start out chaotic and gloriously creative (but anarchic), until eventually a charismatic entrepreneur arrives who brings order to the chaos by offering consumers a more dependable and technologically superior product, the popularity of which enables him to capture the industry. Zukor did that for the movie business, just as — in our time — Steve Jobs did it for the music business. And in The Artist Zimmer immediately grasps the significance of audio and goes for it like an ostrich at a brass doorknob (as PG Wodehouse would have said).”