We’ve never blogged about a book here on Linking Local, but The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires by Tim Wu is so powerful a book, that it has caused me to want to write this. The book does an amazing job of analyzing what Wu calls ‘The Cycle’ - a predictable pattern that many of the early information industries followed. In reading the patterns of the cycle on the telephone, film, radio and television industries, I started to equate it to the cycle of human life; astonishing birth, precarious infancy, wild adolescence, steady adulthood, possible midlife crisis, relaxed retirement and ultimately untimely death. Though this pattern doesn't always map directly to the histories as laid out by Wu, I can’t help but relate them in this way, making it - in my mind at least - much more poignant.
Though the book covers the often perceived distinct industries of telecommunications, entertainment and media industries of the last century, Wu wonderfully describes the entanglement of empires that constituted the dawn of the information age. Starting with Bell and the telephone and continuing through to Google, Wu works his magic by tracing a critical involvement of AT&T in the existence of many, if not all, aspects of the information age.
Wu concludes his analysis of the information industries by calling for what he calls the Separation Principles. Though I can’t do it justice here, I understand it as a call for creating a strong separation between content and distribution. Much like the separation of the executive, judicial and legislative branches of the U.S. Government, he suggests that though a single central command system may be more efficient, it does not provide the essential protections we need in terms of rights and freedoms.
The lessons learned from this book made me reflect as to what might be the next period of the information age; the Communal Information Age or what we see today in its infancy as Open-Data and the Semantic Web. An era when not only is access to information ubiquitous through the use of the Internet, but where public ownership, aggregation and curation of many types of information becomes vital to how we interact with data/information in the future. Essentially, applying to many categories of information the principles that modern cities have applied to public water and other public utilities for centuries. What will happen when not only the transmission, but much of what is transmitted is seen as a public good? The concerns that the Separation Principles attempt to address will be even greater and the risks even greater.
By Jose A. Leal