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'The Master Switch' is the Best Book of 2010
November 14, 2010 - 8:15pm

Ours is a vision of a transformed educational economy, one made possible by the invention of the web and the personal computer. To what extent, however, is the realization of a new educational order dependent on the companies that control the networks and the hardware of the Internet age? If the future of education will be increasingly be produced and delivered via the computer and the web, how likely is it that the values of the market will override the values of academy?

In The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires, Tim Wu does not examine the place of higher ed in the information economy. But I think that it is essential that our community pay attention to the lessons that he draws. In The Master Switch, Wu traces the history of the major information technology revolutions, and demonstrates how they all started with the promise of democratization and transformation and ended up with a realities of monopoly, limited choice, and restricted opportunities for expression.

The major industry that runs through the narrative is that of the telephone, specifically the evolution, monopoly power, break-up, and re-emergence of AT&T. The telephone monopoly brought universal service, but it also strangled and stalled one innovation after another - from faxes to answering machines to the web itself. In the name of quality of service, AT&T was able to secure a government approved monopoly, that from 1934 to 1984 delivered a phone in every home, high prices, and an almost complete lack of innovative technology. Today, the telecom monopoly has turned into a duopoly, with a reconstituted AT$T in the South and West and a re-branded Bell (Verizon) in the Northeast.

It is AT&T, Verizon and the cable providers (Comcast being the largest) that control most of the Internet connections to the home that so much of our future educational content will be delivered. Today, these Internet providers treat educational content (indeed all content) the same way that commercial content is treated. The principle of net neutrality, coined by Tim Wu, insures that all bits are treated equally. But what if the ISPs are able to give preference to one provider of content over another? What if Disney and Comcast had merged? Or the entertainment industry (TV and film) succeed in making deals with the Internet companies to give preferential treatment (and bandwidth) to consumers willing to pay for their content? Where will this leave education and the open education movement?

The genius of The Master Switch is that it shows that information industries have followed a predictable pattern. Wu looks industries as diverse as telephone, radio, television, and film - tracing how the consolidation of each of these sectors led to less freedom of expression and less innovation. The AM radio networks were able to hold-off the new (and vastly improved) FM radio technologies for years and years. TV networks (NBC, CBS and ABC) fought (through political contributions and their lawyers) the emergence of cable TV, slowing down the roll-out of diverse channels for decades. A film industry dominated by a few studios was able to stifle creativity and controversy in movies from the 1930 to the 1960s. Nor is it clear that today's consolidation of media ownership under the conglomerate model, one in which companies like GE, Disney, News Corp, Time Warner, and Viacom own properties spanning the media landscape (from film to TV to publishing to Internet), is conducive to the creation of films that rise above the level of disposable commodities.

The Master Switch is a warning that if we allow ownership to consolidate in the Internet space in the name of 'quality of service' or 'the logic of the market' that we are in danger of repeating the path tread by other information technologies. Government must play a role in insuring we have a diversity of carriers, a policy of neutrality towards content, and a separation between content creators and content carriers. Our ability to disrupt the educational status quo, in terms of both improved quality and access, will depend on us not allowing the Internet industry to follow the same path towards consolidation and control that befell the information industries that have gone before.

The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires is the best book of 2010.

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