It seems that every year when the “best of” lists start coming out, there is one title that makes me slap my forehead in a “huh? I never heard of that book” moment. Actually, I love that feeling. The idea that I can still be surprised in an area where I am supposed to excel is fun. The book this year was The Master Switch, The Rise and Fall of Information Empires by Tim Wu from Alfred A. Knopf.
The author relates how, historically, new information has started out as “open” and that, as it grows, it becomes “closed” by either monopoly or cartel. Examples like the telephone and radio are used to support the author’s claims, and here is why this is a concern:
“This oscillation of information industries between open and closed is so typical a phenomenon that I have given it a name “the Cycle.” And to understand why it occurs, we must discover how industries that traffic in information are naturally and historically different from those based on other commodities.
Such understanding, I submit, is far from an academic concern. For if the Cycle is not merely a pattern but an inevitability, the fact that the Internet, more than any technological wonder before it, has truly become the fabric of our lives means we are sooner or later in for a very jarring turn of history’s wheel. Though it’s a cliché to say so, we do have an information-based economy and society. Our past is one of far less reliance on information than we experience today, and that lesser reliance was served by several information industries at once. Our future, however, is almost certain to be an intensification of our present reality; greater and greater information dependence in every matter of life and work, and all that needed information increasingly traveling a single network we call the Internet. If the Internet, whose present openness has become a way of life, should prove as much a subject to the Cycle as every other information network before it, the practical consequences will be staggering. And already there are signs that the good old day of a completely open network are ending.”