: New: Book Report: The Master Switch

This book's title is a play on words: "The Master Switch" is a switch you can use to turn everything off. A telephone "switch" is a device at the center of a phone network that directs calls as in "switchboard". The book's thesis is this: each time a new communications medium comes along, it starts out loosey-goosey. Eventually, control of that medium centralizes: you end up with a "master switch" in the middle of the network. This leads to too much control over the network: the organization that controls this "master switch" ends up controlling discourse. The book talks about telegraphs, telephones, radios, the break-up and re-forming of AT&T, the internet, and internet search.

The next time someone tells you about the good old days when things were simple and the regulators weren't on your back, remember the telegraph and the election of Rutherford B. Hayes:

With the common law of "common carriage" deemed inapplicable, and the latter-day concept of "net neutrality" not yet imagined, Western Union carried Associated Press reports exclusively. Working closely with the Republican Party and avowedly Republican papers like The New York Times (the ideal of an unbiased press would not be established for some time, and the minting of the Times's liberal bona fides would take longer still), they did what they could to throw the election to Hayes. It was easy: the AP ran story after story about what an honest man Hayes was, what a good governor he had been, or just whatever he happened to be doing that day. It omitted any scandals related to Hayes, and it declined to run positive stories about his rivals (James Blaine in the primary, Samuel Tilden in the general). But beyond routine favoritism, late that Election Day Western Union offered the Hayes campaign a secret weapon that would come to light only much later.

...[A] single communications monopolist can use its power not just for discrimination, but for outright betrayal of trust... Hayes might never have been president but for the fact that Western Union provided secret access to the telegrams sent by his rivals. Western Union’s role was a blatant instance of malfeasance: despite its explicit promise that “all messages whatsoever” would be kept “strictly private and confidential,” the company regularly betrayed the public trust by turning over private, and strategically actionable, communications to the Hayes campaign.

Learn from history; past communication bigwigs did:

To [AT&T monopolist] Vail and [J.P.] Morgan, building redundant phone lines between any two points was as senselessly wasteful as building twenty duplicate rail tracks between two cities, as sometimes happened in the nineteenth century... They also accepted the other lesson of the railroads: without a single master, systemic chaos would undercut efficiency. Vail thought the "opposition" phone companies would stoop to any cut rate, and cut-rate service, just to be in the game. Using the formidable capacity of the Morgans to absorb loss, he undercut the price cutters.

If a communications monopoly company develops some new technology, they're not necessarily going to make it available—it won't help them differentiate their offering from their competitors' offerings: there are no competitors. And so, magnetic tape storage was developed in 1934, but we didn't get to use it until much later.

The genius at the heart of Hickman's secret proto-answering machine was not so much the concept—perceptive of social change as that was—but rather the technical priniciple that made it work and that would, eventually transform the world: magnetic recording tape. ...

If any entity could have come up with advanced recording technology by the 1930s it was Bell Labs. Founded in 1925 for the express purpose of improving telephony, they made good on their mission... and then some: by the 1920s the laboratories had effectively developed a mind of their own, carrying their work beyond better telephones and into basic research to become the world's preeminent corporate-sponsored scientific body. It was a scientific Valhalla, hiring the best men (and later women) they could find and leaving them more or less free to pursue what interested them...

...Bell Labs has been a great force for good. It is, frankly, just the kind of phenomenon that makes one side with Theodore Vail about the blessings of a monopoly. For while AT&T was never formally required to run Bell Labs as a research laboratory, it did so out of exactly the sort of noblesse oblige that Vail espoused. AT&T ran Bell Labs not just for its corporate good but for the greater good as well...

What's interesting is that Hickman's invention in the 1930s would not be " discovered" until the 1990s. For soon after Hickman had demonstrated his invention, AT&T ordered the Labs to cease all research into magnetic storage, and Hickman's research was suppressed and concealed for more than sixty years, coming to light only when the historian Mark Clark came across Hickman's laboratory notebook in the Bell archives.

"The impressive technical successes of Bell Labs' scientists and engineers," writes Clark, "were hidden by the upper management of both Bell Labs and AT&T." AT&T "refused to develop magnetic recording for consumer use and actively discouraged its development and use by others." Eventually magnetic tape would come to America via imports of foreign technology, mainly German.

There are plenty of interesting stories when you start looking at the interesting space around new communications media, old entrenched monopolies, inventors, investors, government officials. This book was an interesting read.

Tags: book trust the machine

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