Thanks in part to my two days of jury duty last week, I was able to speed through two books about information technology and computers recently. The first one, which was recommended to me, is called The Master Switch by Tim Wu, and the second is Hackers by Steven Levy.
First, Master Switch. Wu is a law professor at Columbia University, and his 2010 book is a satisfyingly dense history of information technology. It starts with Alexander Graham Bell and the invention of the telephone and goes right up to what in 2010 was the relatively nascent fight over “net neutrality”, a phrase that Wu himself coined in a 2003 paper.
Wu’s main idea in the book is that information systems go through “a long ‘cycle’ whereby open information systems become consolidated and closed over time, reopening only after disruptive innovation” comes along again (Wikipedia). Basically Wu observes that these information technologies (telephone, radio, TV, internet) go through cycles of “open” (personified by low barrier to entry, amateurs fooling around for little pay, and spotty service and quality of product– more of people pursuing “what could be”) and “closed” (large companies growing powerful, more money injected into an industry, a cleaning-up of standards [either by government regulations or large companies pushing out smaller competition]). Personally I found myself obviously favoring the open parts of a given technology’s cycle.
The other big concept in the book, I think, is that if you’re worried about censorship (or more broadly, a “closing” of an industry), don’t worry so much about what the state / government is doing, but look at how large private industry is affecting things like barrier to entry and distribution. Wu definitely considers the information technology worthy of new and more powerful antitrust laws, due to the growing influence of the industry on our information-heavy economies and lives.
I loved the book. It challenged my ideas about capitalism, technology, and yes, free speech (but not by beating me over the head with a far-left interpretation of the concept). Is capitalism and its economic competition a good environment for promoting real technological innovation? What roles should the state and regulatory bodies take toward disruptive technologies challenging deep-seated and well-established companies?
But the two biggest thoughts I got from the book were: (1) If you believe open systems are better than closed ones, that the current, relatively open internet is good, then the fight over net neutrality is SUPER important. AND that it is nothing new: it is the attempt of large companies to wed distribution of information to content, which, Wu argues pretty convincingly, easily leads to the distribution half of the company giving technological priority to the content produced by the other half of the company and encourages promoting higher barriers to entry for other content.
Idea 1 says, if you like the open internet, let’s fight to keep the internet that way. Let us (activists? programmers? users? teens?) draw a line in the sand here and say no more to the open-to-closed cycle. The internet shall stay open! We know too much about this cycle now, big corporations! Here, here is this book and others like it! The question is: is the internet special enough– different enough from the phone, the radio, television– to break the cycle?
I like idea 1. I love the internet and how powerful it is as a method of communication. But beyond that, as I read this book and thought about what the internet was to me these days. I thought about publishing my first Tumblr post (anonymously!). I thought about GitHub and merging pull requests. Twitter as a marketplace of ideas and news where almost anyone can participate. Good things!
But I also thought about how when I tell people I took a web development course they immediately ask if I want to hear their idea for a mobile app, to live in Apple’s walled-garden, marketing to consumers who will expect a high-level of slick-ness and stability for an easily-paid $2.99, of which Apple will take a percentage. I thought about how much traffic Facebook drives to publishers, and how it seems publishers’ response has been to publish directly to Facebook more frequently. I thought of Twitter execs contemplating an algorithmic timeline, when just 5 years ago they were talking about Annotations:
Annotations promised to upgrade tweets from being a 140-character postcard to being a 140-character message written on the outside of an envelope. What was inside the envelope? Whatever a developer could imagine.
But here’s where things got weird. Eventually, while reading the book, I got to thinking that maybe we should let the internet become closed. Maybe that’s the only way we get to whatever is next, whatever is after the internet. Start fresh, taking all the lessons “we” learned from the first global network, and get the next one right from the get-go.
I hadn’t even thought about what comes after the internet until I read this book. But if Wu’s cycle theory is true, that’s what we’ll be using to share our thoughts and ideas while the internet goes to shit. And it’ll probably come within a matter of decades, if not sooner.
I’ll write about Hackers some other time. MIT in the ’50s man.
P.S. Here are some other books about the internet that I’m thinking about reading next. Let me know if you have any other suggestions!
- The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation
- Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age
- Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins Of The Internet (What a title!)