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Publisher's Summary

A secret history of the industrial wars behind the rise and fall of the 20th century's great information empires - Hollywood, the broadcast networks, and AT&T - asking one big question: Could history repeat itself, with one giant entity taking control of American information?

Most consider the Internet Age to be a moment of unprecedented freedom in communications and culture. But as Tim Wu shows, each major new medium, from telephone to cable, arrived on a similar wave of idealistic optimism only to become, eventually, the object of industrial consolidation profoundly affecting how Americans communicate. Every once-free and open technology was in time centralized and closed, a huge corporate power taking control of the master switch. Today, as a similar struggle looms over the Internet, increasingly the pipeline of all other media, the stakes have never been higher. To be decided: who gets heard, and what kind of country we live in. Part industrial exposé, part meditation on the nature of freedom of expression, part battle cry to save the Internet's best features, The Master Switch brings to light a crucial drama rife with indelible characters and stories, heretofore played out over decades in the shadows of our national life.

©2010 Tim Wu (P)2010 Audible, Inc

Critic Reviews

“Wu’s engaging narrative and remarkable historical detail make this a compelling and galvanizing cry for sanity - and necessary deregulation - in the information age.” (Publishers Weekly)
“This is an essential look at the directions that personal computing could be headed depending on which policies and worldviews come to dominate control over the Internet.” (Booklist)
"There’s a sharp insight and a surprising fact on nearly every page of Wu’s masterful survey. Above all, Wu shows that each new communications technology spawns the same old quest for power." (The Boston Globe)
"A brilliant exploration of the oscillations of communications technologies between 'open' and 'closed' from the early days of the telephone up through Hollywood and broadcast television up to the Internet era." (
"My pick for economics book of the year." (Ezra Klein, The Washington Post)

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  • Neil
  • Amsterdam, Netherlands
  • 10-24-11

Very interesting history, biased conclusions

I've never heard of Tim Wu before reading this, but he really knows his stuff as far as media/technology history goes. The best parts of this book were examining this history of prior "cutting edge" media (Telephony, Radio, Television) through the eyes of what we'd now call the "Open Source" vs. "Closed System" dynamic. Fascinating and informative. I found I couldn't put it down.

HOWEVER -- the last hour turns into a very biased analysis of what's going on today.

I take his larger point -- that the Internet's open-ended structure which we tend to think of as permanent is not, in fact, unassailable. I think it's a well-supported point and he makes some interesting conjectures as to how that structure could change.

But I feel he makes a serious error in his analysis.

Specifically, he reduces "fate of the communications future" to a simple dynamic: Apple vs Google, with his preference clearly falling on Team Google. I think this a fairly short-sighted, narrow interpretation. Unlike the Bell of RCA companies of yesteryear, *neither* company owns anything that could not be replaced through a process of consumer demand. (Neither owns the "wires") Apple is not the "too big to fail" monopoly that Bell was -- it just plays nicely with the companies that are. So while these two companies clearly have different ideologies vis-a-vis the internet, BOTH could be undone by a vertically integrated powerhouse!

Further, as another reviewer points out, it assumes an American dominance of the communications future. And, like it or not, the Internet has wrested that ability from any one nation. Let's assume that "Comcast-NBC-Verizon-Apple-Intel-Universal" (Hypothetical Conglomerate) were to make the internet "controlled" in the USA. This would be such an economic disadvantage the the US, that new pioneer firms would pop up in more free information markets. This will always serve as a disincentive towards central control.

My griping aside -- I can heartily recommend this book. Take some of the analyses with a grain of salt and make up your own mind -- but don't skip this book simply because it draws some dodgy conclusions. You'll learn a lot and it will make you think.

24 of 24 people found this review helpful

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  • Roy
  • Beaumont, TX, United States
  • 11-12-10

Great Read

Tim Wu, a scholar of technology, innovation and cyberspace has produced a very informative book which is timely in many ways. He relates in detail how communication technology has been guided by the profit motive and political actions during the last century and the current era. I have heard some of these stories before, but not in this context. If you are interested in or concerned about the direction that electronic media is taking in the US, this is the book for you. It is not light reading, but well worth the time spent. I found the first few chapters a little tedious largely because they were not covering what I was I thought were my interests. After a while, however, I realized what Wu was saying and by the last third of the book he had "my earlobes in his hands." I would, however, recommend that you listen to the Audible recording of Wu's earlier book, "Who Controls the Internet?", first for background. This book will fill in the details and more. Well written and accessible. Marc Vietor's narration is excellent.

31 of 32 people found this review helpful

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  • RickyF
  • United States
  • 02-06-11

One of the best books of 2010

Wu does a masterful job of documenting the tyrants of communications and how they manipulate the political and legal system to stifle competition and twist the marketplace to their benefit at the expense of the rest of us. The stories are fascinating and the lessons instructive. Highly recommended.

6 of 6 people found this review helpful

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  • Steve
  • Maplewood, NJ, United States
  • 10-03-11

Must listen for anyone in technology or media

Where does The Master Switch rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?

Master Switch is a modern history book about the rise and fall of information and the technology (and people) that facilitated it. As a technologist I find it to be a required listen for anyone interested in technology and media with the hope that there are many lessons to learn.

What did you like best about this story?

How Tim Wu takes the listener on a tour of the history of information technology and the communication empires that it spawned such as telephone, radio, television and now those that evolved from the internet and mobile spaces.

Which character – as performed by Marc Vietor – was your favorite?

The depiction of Edison and David Sarnoff were quite interesting. However, it wasn't specifically due to Marc's narration.

Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

The book is too dense to listen in one sitting. I found that I would listen to passages and then reflect on them later. There were a few chapters that I listened to more than once.

5 of 5 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

amazing story of technology

I have been a technology lover for last twenty years but could never see the cycle of development{business cycle }
In another great book from Tim Wu after Who controls Internet , takes on a ride of technology as if we had gone back in time with main actors of story.
It has been a interesting read as I have completed part 1 in one go.

Great work Tim Wu, we need more like you

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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  • Tim
  • United States
  • 01-28-11

Geek Read

I needed a good tech read and this title what my interest called for. Tim Wu went beyond at doing his homework for this book. The Master Switch needs to be an requirement for any communication class. The book force us to look on an open network. Great read!!! I was hook.

13 of 15 people found this review helpful

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  • Kenneth
  • LEESBURG, VA, United States
  • 04-11-11

The Impending Closure of the Internet

This book makes an historical argument that the natural evolution for information industries is a succession of generations, where each generation starts with an open disruptive innovation that at some point transitions to a closed monopoly (or duopoly). The book then expands on this model, by showing a few common, but less natural (i.e., forced) variations on this pattern. The first variation is where the established monopoly destroys the new industry in it infancy (usually involving some criminal thuggery and a good deal of predatory pricing and/or price fixing), thus co-opting the disruption. A less common variation is where the government steps in to breakup or limit the anti-social behaivor of a monopoly.

The book then argues that the Internet is historically unique among information industries, because it has created horizontal monopolies (like Google) instead of the traditional vertical monopolies (like ATT or NBC at their peeks). The result is a much more openness for the same level of industry maturity, which is mostly good for society. The author seems deeply ambivalent about rather this is a stable situation. It presents a rather strong set of arguments for the idea that sometime in the next 10 year (approximately) the Internet will probably transformed from the ???Wild West??? into a closed monopoly much more like TV in the ???70s. But in the end the author is unsure that the Internet is not somehow fundamentally different, so he argues that, while this possibility should be taken far more seriously than most do, the actually outcome is approximately unknowable.

Nevertheless, he embraces the idea that society should want the internet to remain open and should be willing to make changes to ensure that this happens.
Thinking about the internet in the context of the long history of abusive monopolistic practices in U.S. information industries is a surprisingly useful. This is one of the better books I???ve read this year.

8 of 9 people found this review helpful

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  • Paul
  • Minneapolis, MN, United States
  • 01-28-11


Really dug this. Really makes you scared about cult companies like Apple. Read this if you're at all interested in technology, entertainment, communications, or just the future.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

Interesting and informative

Wu's book ties together the stories of the evolution of various information technologies into mass media conglomerates and empires in America over the past 150 years. Just as interesting as the parallel paths of consolidation into monopolies is the impact of the various larger-than-life moguls who built these empires. From Theodore Vail and Adolf Zucker to Steve Jobs these men recognized the opportunities of their lifetimes and seized them by the throat. It is instructive to consider this recurring history when anticipating the likely future of the internet. Will the Googles dominate or will it be a new era of Net neutrality? It may be too early to say, but this book makes you aware of the likely scenario that history implies. A good read.

7 of 8 people found this review helpful

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  • Gary
  • Las Cruces, NM, United States
  • 05-27-12

Good history, good current state

Compelling history of information companies and what the current state looks like and what will happen in the future based on history. He covers the history so well I'll never listen to a another history on this topic again.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • Mick Conroy
  • 02-03-15

Brilliant technological non fiction

A well written account of the similarities between 19th and 20th century cycles of communication technology. Never dry, this is a story of interesting inventors and the villains they came up against or became. Recommended for anyone who wants to understand the Internet in the context of the last 150 years. Perfectly narrated.

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  • Brendan McCarthy
  • 01-30-15


Complex, inaccessible ideas expertly articulated and illustrated. A wonderful book, highly recommended. Well worth reading.