A fresh stimulus for media history

by Malcolm Baird. A slightly modified version of this review appeared in the February 2011 issue of "Television" published by the Royal Television Society.

The Master Switch: the rise and fall of information empires
by Tim Wu
Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House Inc., New York, 2010
ISBN 978-0-307-26993-5
Hardcover, 354 pp., $US 27.95

Media people are apt to ignore media history and focus on the present and the future. They are also apt to speak and write in a sort of argot which can be incomprehensible to the outsider.

Tim Wu is a professor of law at New York's Columbia University and his book comes as a refreshingly useful contribution, not only for the general reader but for the think tanks which are trying to guide the great media organizations into an uncertain future. The book covers several electrical/electronic communications media (the telephone, radio, film, television, the internet) from an evolutionary point of view. The "invention" of each medium is evoked vividly: for example, Alexander Graham Bell's first phone call to his assistant Watson in the next room, and John Logie Baird with his flickery 30-line picture of a ventriloquist's dummy. The book’s main themes however are non-technical, namely business and economics and above all, corporate power. If it were not for the need to keep the book reasonably short, a consideration of print as a medium would also have been instructive. Print is the oldest medium and it is still viable although fundamentally different from the electronic media.

In The Master Switch, Prof. Wu seeks to draw a parallel between the different media in a kind of evolutionary theory which starts out with an invention, goes on to an "open" (free-for-all) state and then culminates in the domination of the industry by one or two large organizations. This evolutionary approach is attractive to the person who likes a neat formula that would fit into a sound bite. However there are notable exceptions, for example in the UK. The early development of broadcast radio (and later television) was closely controlled by the government through the Post Office and the BBC, although the latter was not strictly a government body. The monopoly control by the BBC was broken up as late as the 1950s more recently the radio and television broadcasting industries have fragmented further. In America, the three great television networks are shadows of what they were, due to competition from specialty channels – and of course from DVDs, video on demand, etc. In the parallel area of electronic manufacturing, the dominant position of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) ended in the 1980s.

An alternative media model to Prof. Wu's evolutionary theory is one that is familiar to chemists: namely the concept of dynamic equilibrium. According to this, a system will adjust itself according to changes in external conditions a chemical equilibrium is not something static but it can shift in response to conditions such as temperature and pressure. For the media, external conditions may include political factors (capitalism versus socialism), economic factors (boom versus recession) and above all, technical innovation. Prof. Wu is right to stress the importance of the ideas of the economist Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950) on the role of innovation and the fear of innovation by large organizations because it "rocks the boat". For many years the film industry was afraid of television today, the television industry is afraid of the internet which attracts younger and better-educated sectors of the population.

To conclude although I have reservations about this book, I recommend it as a stimulus for media policy makers and as a lucid exposition for the lay reader. Dare I suggest that it might form the basis of a TV documentary series?