I’m not a big fan of the consumptive nature of the “holiday season,” though I do love me some reading. One of the latest on my wish list is Tim Wu’s new tome, The Master Switch. The book itself examines the rise of “information empires” within U.S. communications history, ranging from radio to the Internet.
Wu occupies an interesting place in the media policymaking world: he’s not been afraid to speak his mind, and he’s also remained independent enough to look at our information environment from a strategic perspective, instead of getting embroiled in tactical distractions.
I think the “Constitutional option” that Wu suggests to break up the increasingly centralized control of our communications infrastructure is truly radical. However, in a recent Wall Street Journal article Wu makes a compelling argument that we’ve already reached the point of “information monopolies,” especially online and, despite whatever the latest policy-of-the-month skirmish might be, some radical action is necessary.
Info-monopolies tend to be good-to-great in the short term and bad-to-terrible in the long term. For a time, firms deliver great conveniences, powerful efficiencies and dazzling innovations. That’s why a young monopoly is often linked to a medium’s golden age….The downside shows up later, as the monopolist ages and the will to innovate is replaced by mere will to power….The costs of the monopoly are mostly borne by entrepreneurs and innovators. Over the long run, the consequences afflict the public in more subtle ways, as what were once highly dynamic parts of the economy begin to stagnate.
With regard to the Internet, things are “still relatively young, and we remain in the golden age of these monopolists. We can also take comfort from the fact that most of the Internet’s giants profess an awareness of their awesome powers and some sense of attendant duty to the public. Perhaps if we’re vigilant, we can prolong the benign phase of their rule. But let’s not pretend that we live in anything but an age of monopolies.”
Now, if only Santa can can deliver on the necessary enlightenment and vigilance.