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The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires

Tim Wu · 14 HN comments
HN Books has aggregated all Hacker News stories and comments that mention "The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires" by Tim Wu.
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Amazon Summary
A New Yorker and Fortune Best Book of the Year Analyzing the strategic maneuvers of today’s great information powers–Apple, Google, and an eerily resurgent AT&T–Tim Wu uncovers a time-honored pattern in which invention begets industry and industry begets empire. It is easy to forget that every development in the history of the American information industry–from the telephone to radio to film–once existed in an open and chaotic marketplace inhabited by entrepreneurs and utopians, just as the Internet does today. Each of these, however, grew to be dominated by a monopolist or cartel. In this pathbreaking book, Tim Wu asks: will the Internet follow the same fate? Could the Web–the entire flow of American information–come to be ruled by a corporate leviathan in possession of "the master switch"? Here, Tim Wu shows how a battle royale for Internet’s future is brewing, and this is one war we dare not tune out.
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Hacker News Stories and Comments

All the comments and stories posted to Hacker News that reference this book.
Really liked this post - brings up some great points, and I consider Moxie a friend.

Here are a few notes that came to mind though...

1. For NFTs, some keep their data in IPFS (decentralized file storage) or in the smart contract itself for procedurally generated images. We (as a community) should probably move more to solutions like this over time, since it is indeed more decentralized to build them that way.

2. I agree with the overall point that clients don't behave like full nodes. However, there has been quite a bit of discussion about "light clients" in the crypto community even going back to the early days of Bitcoin/Ethereum, so i wouldn't say it hasn't been an area of focus.

3. I agree there is an overall move toward using platforms. But there is a big difference between using a platform that also owns all the data also (web2) and a platform that is merely a proxy to decentralized data (web3). In the latter, if a platform ever turns evil, people will switch. Not owning the data counts for a lot.

4. There are more options than Infura and Alchemy. Access to simple blockchain data will be relatively commoditized. Which is good for decentralization.

As Moxie points out, it's still difficult to build things in a decentralized way (nascent tools), so you are seeing various apps/companies revert to using more centralized web2 techniques when they run into a hairy technical problem. As a result, there are a lot of "hybrid" web2/web3 apps during this phase of web3 development. That doesn't mean the overall trend is bad though. I think it's great that more and more web3/decentralized technologies are being developed.

I do agree that all networks tend toward centralization over time. Great book on this https://www.amazon.com/Master-Switch-Rise-Information-Empire...

I don't think crypto is anywhere near this end stage though. We are still seeing a lot of new technology and players enter the space. It's not "already centralized" as much as it is "still using some web2 components".

These points aside, the post is great and I basically agree with the overall premise.

magicjosh
Getting Tim Wu to analyze cryptocurrencies with his lens of networks and centralization would be a real treat.
gaogao
1) The addressing side of IPFS could probably actually be standardized to be as ubiquitous as URLs or email addresses. DNS style stuff is honestly a reasonably good blockchain fit. The storage and server side of it still has a ton of gaps, where lessons learned from torrents are being somewhat inefficiently rediscovered.

4) It sounds like the data available already from those two isn't that simple and is likely to only become more complex over time.

Heck, web2 is still using a ton of web1 components. What are the forces to push some dapp to be fully decentralized e2e?

clippablematt
I think it really is light client development that will make a big change to being decentralised e2e. Being able to talk with the chain directly from an app or webpage without needing to make api requests to a node (be it local or infura/alchemy). If we can get light clients for indexing/search networks too that would be the dream.
On one side, we have people who want decentralization and unrestricted markets in the metaverse, protected by distributed consensus protocols. On the other side, we have corporations like Meta, who want centralization and regulated transactions in the metaverse, protected by winner-take-all economies of scale. Quoting from the OP:

> "What Facebook is doing with meta...is a 'fake metaverse,' unless they actually have a real description as to how we can truly own it," ... "Until then, it's just Disneyland. It's a beautiful place to be, but we probably don't want to really live there. It's not the kind of place that we can actually build a business."

IMHO, this is just a new chapter in an age-old battle between dominant players building "Disneylands" and those who want "The Wild West" to remain, well, wild. This battle been ongoing since the emergence of the earliest information/communication networks. Tim Wu, who has studied the subject extensively, has written a good book about it: "The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires."[a]

[a] https://www.amazon.com/Master-Switch-Rise-Information-Empire...

hotpotamus
So when you really live there, where is your corporeal form? Floating in a nutrient broth? If so, I'd prefer chicken flavored over the beef or vegetarian options please.
A good book about trusts, antitrusts and monopoly in it/communication in US is “Master Switch”.

https://www.amazon.com/Master-Switch-Rise-Information-Empire...

It talks at length about Bell, but also other monopolists in our field.

If you haven't read his book The Master Switch, it's a fantastic read on the history of communication technology.

https://www.amazon.com/Master-Switch-Rise-Information-Empire...

websites2323
Even better is “The Attention Merchants.” Pair that with Zuboff’s “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” and you’ll have a good foundation for how dangerous Facebook is. Something needs to be done. Monopoly is a means to an end here, but it might not get the job done. What need is a ban on behavioral advertising full stop.
In the United States, I think we're living in an era of remarkably _little_ censorship; compare Hays Code-era Hollywood to today (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Motion_Picture_Production_Code)

Tim Wu's "The Master Switch" (https://www.amazon.com/Master-Switch-Rise-Information-Empire...) touches on censorship in the context of information systems.

Almost nobody considers how much the "censorship" discussion lags behind what media conglomerates were willing to broadcast to begin with, see Wu's comparisons between media standards in the States vs. the British Broadcasting Company's.

jraines
Wu also conceptualizes information systems/paradigms as a cycle, in which radio developed a lot like the Internet:

1. wild west days; diversity of both content and quality.

2. Winners emerge by both ruthlessness, inside dealing, AND winning on quality.

3. Their "quality" becomes a standard and a cashcow, and begins to stagnate as the formula is milked. At the same time, they continue to starve and/or absorb competitors, which has two negative effects: first, innovation slows or is actively suppressed. Second, (the key point in this context) as the industry centralizes, the few players (or player) remaining becomes a target for pressure groups. And they are all too willing to comply, because at this point they are either monopolies or near-monopolies and are eager to show the government and public (read: advertisers) that they are "serving the public interest", and shouldn't be regulated, investigated, and broken up. (The Hays Code was adopted "voluntarily" by the studios)

Argue about immigration and whose country is best while they gather the torches.

Reduce the 'techlash' to another front in the forever culture war without considering how your hacker birthright is under attack.

Associate yourselves with megacorps and money, nice cars and 401(k)s.

Ally with those who hate privacy. [0]

Ally with those who practice psychological manipulation on a global scale. [1]

* Stallman warned us. [2]

* Wu warned us. [3]

* Doctorow warned us. [4]

* Schneier warned us and tried to explain it to everyone. [5]

> Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind.

> On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. [6]

[0] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/04/29/zuckerberg-privacy...

[1] https://www.vox.com/2018/8/8/17664580/persuasive-technology-...

[2] Anything the man has written in the last 35 years

[3] https://www.amazon.com/Master-Switch-Rise-Information-Empire...

[4] https://boingboing.net/2012/01/10/lockdown.html

[5] https://www.lawfareblog.com/security-or-surveillance (He has another better article about the start of the new crypto wars but I can't find it)

[6] https://www.eff.org/cyberspace-independence

OH these fresh young naive minds, who think censorship never happens. Censorship happens ALL THE TIME. The Radio, TV, and Film industries in the USA - they have all been censored, from the very beginning.[1] So it was self-censorship at the behest of the government. What's the difference? Censorship is all around us.

Americans self-censor tits and genitals, Europeans self-censor violence. Censorship is everywhere.

I think this whole discussion is extremely naive.

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Master-Switch-Rise-Information-Empire...

PavlovsCat
> I think this whole discussion is extremely naive.

As in, every single comment in it states that censorship wouldn't exist if Google didn't cooperate with China on this? Or that there is just "censorhip" or "no censorship", without any further qualification or context?

That's clearly not the case, so what is this even in response to?

kome
Can we agree on the fact that censorship in a democracy is different from censorship in an autocracy?
alexandercrohde
I find the way you phrase this super-alienating. If anything, it pushes me away from your cause.

1. Comes across as ad-hominem

2. Comes across as emotional/pedantic

3. For example, yes "pornography" is censored on broadcast TV, but many other things aren't. There are obviously degrees of censorship.

4. If your goal is to convince people that things are more censored than they realize you might want to cite some real world examples of political censorship that happened in America that support that point.

5. Your whole comment is pretty much irrelevant to the discussion at hand. Regardless of whether censorship is common or uncommon in the US, it's still meaningful to take a stance against creating a politically-censored search in China.

scarcely
I don't think the user you are responding intends his comment to be putting forward some watertight argument. It sounds light-hearted to me. It's puzzling to me that you'd pick on this one particular comment to produce a detailed, five-point rebuttal in a thread like this one where there are so many other more important targets to go after.
alexandercrohde
I think I understand where you're coming from.

Here's my motivation - I think there are actually some pretty scary problems out there. However, I think it is possible to talk about an important issue in a way so emotional that it actually backfires and creates a negative impression of those who care about an issue.

For example, Alex Jones is right to lament the pesticide atrazine that changes frogs sexes [1], but by virtue of being Alex Jones actually may look a wider swath of environmentally-conscious look somewhat unreliable by association.

Another example is Al Gore: even though he had an important message on climate change his manner was so distasteful that it's hard to argue he helped the cause.

When I see someone who agrees with my beliefs but comes across as hysterical I try to metaphorically "hold a mirror up" so they can learn to phrase their message in a way that won't drive people away.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atrazine#Amphibians

scarcely
Ah! My bad for not realizing that. I would only add that those who give so much weight to tone/delivery heuristics are also to blame. But I see your point, I feel similarly frustrated sometimes and I can definitely imagine myself acting the same way you did.
I highly recommend the book "Master Switch" by Tim Wu on this topic. (https://www.amazon.com/Master-Switch-Rise-Information-Empire...).

It argues that every information networks in the history- telegraph, telephone, radio, cable - follow the pattern of consolidation and disintegration. The new inventions always had the chance to disrupt the old industry, but our modern network - the Internet - might be an exception. Because the Internet is the master switch of all things digitized.

Flow https://www.amazon.com/Flow-Psychology-Experience-Perennial-...

Antifragile https://www.amazon.com/Antifragile-Things-That-Disorder-Ince...

High Output Management https://www.amazon.com/High-Output-Management-Andrew-Grove/d...

The Master Switch https://www.amazon.com/Master-Switch-Rise-Information-Empire...

Thinking Fast and Slow https://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Fast-Slow-Daniel-Kahneman/dp...

jamestimmins
Upvote for The Master Switch. It's one of the few books that manages to brilliantly cover a large territory within a small number of pages (<300).
The Master Switch by Tim Wu [0] goes into great detail about how AT&T invented this racket 120+ years ago and has been perfecting their fleecing tactics since. I particularly enjoy the opening of the book at a 1916 top hat banquet celebrating just how filthy rich their monopoly has become under Theodore Vail.

The Idea Factory by Jon Gertner [1] however asserts that the AT&T monopoly allowed Bell Labs to essentially invent the entire information age, but that without the official monopoly, we no longer see the huge investments in basic research, and commensurate major break throughs.

Damn if you do. Damned if you don't.

[0]: https://www.amazon.com/The-Master-Switch-Information-Empires...

[1]: https://www.amazon.com/The-Idea-Factory-American-Innovation/...

I didn't realize Tim Wu had gotten into politics. This makes me very happy.

Tim Wu wrote the The Master Switch [1], which explains how US media/telecom wound up the way it is today -- how the dominant players came about in various industries (radio, broadcast and cable TV, movies, telephones), and the events that led to the legislative/regulatory environment we have today. The book also explains how IP laws (patents, copyright, etc) have shaped history.

The Master Switch should be required reading before discussing such topics on Hacker News.

[1] http://www.amazon.com/The-Master-Switch-Information-Empires/...

rayiner
Master Switch is an approachable book and offers some interesting historical accounts. But it's definitely a book intended for a mass audience that embodies Wu's particular take on the whole industry. The major weakness of the book is that, as a sacrifice to the narrative format, it gives insufficient weight to a major aspect of the whole story: how telecom regulation is shaped by contemporary trends in economics and the economics of regulation.

I'd recommend your second read after Master Switch to be a proper textbook in telecom regulation, for a more detached take. My (quite biased--I know one of the authors) recommendation: http://www.cap-press.com/pdf/2322.pdf.

Your third read should be Khan's "The Economics of Regulation" http://www.amazon.com/The-Economics-Regulation-Principles-In..., which puts the whole field into the larger context of the economic theories in play and how those theories have been applied to various regulatory and deregulatory efforts.

Jul 14, 2014 · caster_cp on Net neutrality
I know this may end up seeming a pretty useless comment, but I cannot miss the opportunity of recommending a VERY good book about this subject, by the guy who coined the term net neutrality: http://www.amazon.com/The-Master-Switch-Information-Empires/...

The book analyses monopolies in information businesses, since Western Union, going through Bell and proceding all along to the era of Google and Apple. The end of the book is filled with very good insight on the subject. If this is a topic that interests you as much as it interests me, you should get yourself a copy of this.

The Master Switch, by Tim Wu, comes pretty close: http://www.amazon.com/The-Master-Switch-Information-Empires/...
If you want an interesting perspective on this idea, check The Master Switch, written by Tim Wu.

http://www.amazon.com/Master-Switch-Information-Empires-Vint...

Amazon Book Description: It is easy to forget that every development in the history of the American information industry–from the telephone to radio to film–once existed in an open and chaotic marketplace inhabited by entrepreneurs and utopians, just as the Internet does today. Each of these, however, grew to be dominated by a monopolist or cartel. In this pathbreaking book, Tim Wu asks: will the Internet follow the same fate? Could the Web–the entire flow of American information–come to be ruled by a corporate leviathan in possession of "the master switch"?

Analyzing the strategic maneuvers of today’s great information powers–Apple, Google, and an eerily resurgent AT&T–Wu uncovers a time-honored pattern in which invention begets industry and industry begets empire. He shows how a battle royale for Internet’s future is brewing, and this is one war we dare not tune out.

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