Saturday, January 26, 2013


Blog post (from readings) #2: Wu, Tim. Introduction and Ch. 1 in The Master Switch. Post thoughts or questions about the reading to the class blog for discussion. What struck you as interesting? What did you learn that you think you might remember five years from now?


  1. I was never aware that Bell’s reputation for being an innovative genius and inventor was in question. Was it a mere coincidence that Alexander Bell and Elisha Gray were at the patenting office to try and patent the same thing on the very same day? The evidence seems to be against Bell. After all, one of his lawyers bribed someone with $100 to take a look at Gray’s design. But I guarantee you ten out of ten people will say that Bell created the telephone when asked. If the evidence is against Bell, why does society still accept him as the creator?
    I like how the book points out that when two people are working toward an invention, it seems unlikely that they both discovered something simultaneously. Someone has to be first. In Bell’s case, that may have happened 16 years before Bell when a man named Johann Philip Reis presented the primitive telephone. Germany actually claims the man to be the inventor of the telephone. I think Bell was regarded widely as the creator because technology was advanced enough in his time to start mass production and access to the telephone, something the earlier inventors did not have.

  2. Just about all of the information that I learned in the introduction and chapter one of The Master Switch, from the founding story of the telephone (and AT&T) to what Tim Wu deems “the Cycle,” came from stories I had not previously heard. An enduring image that I took away from the introduction was that of 800-plus powerful men, from private capitalists to the government elite, sitting at the National Geographic Society banquet and being simply astonished by what was described as the world’s first multimedia presentation. This stuck with me because it is truly remarkable to think about the exponential magnitudes with which technology has progressed in less than 100 years. It is also interesting to think about the theory presented behind communications innovations and how everything starts off as youthful innovation and utopianism, yet eventually fails to retain its novelty.

    Perhaps the other story that I am most likely to retain five-plus years down the road is the epic battle that took place between the Bell Company and Western Union. To think that the 1876 presidential election made Bush v. Gore look like a “garden party” is simply astounding; especially given the fact that the largest monopoly of the time was essentially responsible for deciding the presidential election (while simultaneously betraying the public’s trust). It is both surreal and bizarre to think about a time in American political and economic history when such an event could happen, especially with such ease, only to witness Western Union fall years later in the Bell Company’s aggressive patent lawsuit.

  3. I was nervous to read Wu's book after watching his interview in class the other day; to be honest, I thought he sounded like a pompous ass and I lost interest in him minutes after he started talking. However, I was pleasantly surprised when I started reading the chapter -- it was much more interesting and enjoyable.

    In general, I very much like his idea of The Cycle and its stages and players. The concept of creative destruction was also interesting to me, particularly because most people look at destruction as a negative thing, which it's clearly not, based off of his examples.

  4. I was interested and intrigued by Tim Wu's idea of what he called "the Cycle." It is obvious to anyone living today that Wu's "Cycle" has applied to such innovation as the telephone, radio, motion pictures, and cable television but his certainty that such will happen to the internet is what is interesting. The internet is so vast and it thrives on its openness that I for one would be surprised if it ever caters to the "Cycle." I do hope innovations do happen to improve the internet, I was too young to realize what was happening when the internet first really became widely used. I would like to experience a moment like the men in the room during Vail's multimedia presentation.

    The story that I will retain five years down the road is the ideals of titans like Vail on competition. I always thought that America was built on things like competition and people's ideas converging but in reality information technologies started open and slowly were taken over by great men who believed that competition was bad, in Vail's words it was "giving America a bad name." It changed my perception of how technology has grown in America

  5. I found this entire reading very interesting as it challenged many of the things I believed to be true. I always thought Bell invented the telephone, just as I always accepted Darwin and Galileo as discoverers in their respective fields. Reading this challenged what I believed to be fact, and raises the question, what other inventions, discoveries, or theories could be wrongly attributed? Who in history may have become famous for something that he or she was not really responsible for? Any number of facts in history could be incorrect, or at least disputable. As stated in the chapter, Bell didn’t invent anything so much as assemble the pieces.

    The part of the chapter I found most interesting was Vail’s ideas about competition. He preferred monopoly to competition, which seems very backwards to me. He considered competition to be “industrial warfare”, whereas today it is a good thing. If we had only monopolies, we would end up having to pay more for everything because there were no competing businesses to force down prices. But to Vail, competition was bad. I found his views very interesting because they were based on his own morals and beliefs.

    Finally I found the Cycle interesting and I think that from now on I will always think of new forms of technology in terms of the Cycle. As the text says, that which is centralized eventually becomes a target for assault. It seems that most technological discoveries and inventions are a little like trends. If they can’t stay relevant, they crash and burn and make way for new ones.

  6. After reading Tim Wu’s description of “The Cycle,” it seems that this idea is not unique to just the aspect of communication. I would argue that every mold of business is somehow formulated through this principle. In his described cycle, there is always a powerful businessman who constructs new inventions and pushes the boundaries of economics further than anyone else is willing to. This is why, according to Wu, men like Vail were so successful in creating monopolies in their field. As I mentioned before, businesses that find themselves in the conversation of monopolizing their industry, are ultimately ran by highly powerful businessmen. These individuals, in my opinion, are what enable the “cycle” to not only exist, but to continue to run through time. Without innovators and men who are willing to take control over certain markets, technology, communication, medicine, etc., would simply not evolve over time.

    After reading the first chapter, I’d find myself thinking a lot about how Wu was able to find out all of this information, despite it being from a period where records are very limited. He never goes into great detail about how he discovers the many secrets that were hidden by Vail and the Bell Company, yet his writing appears very confident in the truth. Although many things are clearly footnoted, it would be nice to find out where he found these articles, records, etc.

  7. I was interested in his idea that he did not think the Internet was controlled by companies like telephones were controlled by AT&T. I think the Internet is controlled in a similar manner. In order to use the Internet, a person has to have Internet service, in order to have service, a provider has to be paid, just like in order to use a phone, a provider, such as AT&T, has to be paid. In some aspects the Internet is more controlled because of censorship. Unlike the phone, whoever controls the Internet service can determine what websites can be visited and which cannot.

    I think I will remember the idea of The Cycle the most. I think everyone knows about The Cycle without discussing it because there is always someone, somewhere trying to improve upon someone else's ideas and inventions and that there is always a better and easier way to do things. The Cycle is just an example of evolution and demonstrating the idea of survival of the fittest.

  8. I'd never thought to associate the way industrial wars shape our society the way "literal" wars do, but it makes sense. If Western Union hadn't lost, or essentially given up, the telephone, communication technology today could be so far behind what we have. AT&T had to keep innovating to succede but Western Union, if they'd won the telephone battle, would have severely stunted its development — we probably wouldn't have iPhones as we know them today, and even though that wouldn't change the nature of media, as Wu says, our society would definitely look a lot different.

  9. When reading the introduction and Chapter one of Tim Wu's THE MASTER SWITCH, I was surprised to read than in Vail, there was an industrial titan that wasn't hated. Also, I was surprised to read that Vail was a strong capitalist who didn't exactly believe in the free market - instead believing that a trusted few should make all market decisions for the rest of us.

    Five years from now, I think I will remember that when all of these inventions came to be, there were people who thought it would change everything about our lives, much like we think of the internet now. In particular, the D.W. Griffith quote struck me - "children in the public schools will be taught practically everything by moving pictures. Certainly they will never be obliged to read history again."

    I will also remember the way in which Western Union and the Associated Press helped Rutherford B. Hayes become President, a fact that I was unaware of before this reading.

  10. Tim Wu's "The Master Switch" forced me to think critically about historical events that have contributed to society today. Like many other young adults, I tend to marvel at recent technological advancements without considering the deeper history behind each device. The transition from Western Union to AT&T was previously unknown to me, and it's something I'll definitely keep in mind--as a result of this, the telephone industry has been irrevocably changed, and yet it's a development few know or care about. The impact also expands far beyond the telephone industry, as it affected political and social dynamics as well.

  11. I love when Tim Wu quotes the line from The Invention of Love, "Every age thinks it's the modern age, but this one really is," in the introduction. I think the millenial generation is especially guilty of claiming our age as the truly best modern age, and it's hard for us to imagine technology advancing anymore than it already has. The quote also sets the stage for Wu's belief that in order to understand the nature of the Cycle, we have to look at past experience.

    Something that resonated with me that I will remember five years from now is the inevitable ties between politics and media. I found it fascinating to read about the "special relationship" between the Republican Party and the telegraph industry, that the AP ran stories to lead Hayes to victory, and that the commissions were blatantly manipulated. Obviously (or I hope obviously?) politics and media aren't as closely related as they once were, but this again shows how history repeats itself. It proves that once a company is headed towards monopoly or has a huge part in the national discourse, political involvement really is inevitable.

  12. The introduction and first chapter of Wu’s “The Master Switch,” taught me a few things that I had not learned in traditional history books. It presented the idea of a Cycle of invention and industry, distinguishing the differences between restorative and destruction innovation. It was interesting learning about Vail’s beliefs on capitalism and competition. In today’s economic market, the public tends to view monopolies as enemies, but as pointed out they served a purpose to inspire innovation. It is also interesting to note how Vail saw a link between a free market and monopolies.

    I also would like to learn more about Schumpeter’s cycle of industrial life, where destructive innovation can be captured and used to sustain industry dominance.

    Five or 10 years from now, I think these same concepts will apply to the Internet. To a greater extent, the Internet is a nondiscriminatory communication vehicle, open to all. However, smart phones and tablet devices are challenging this open access model. What happens when everyone switches from laptops to devices? Suddenly their service provider, who most likely is a monopoly or duopoly, limits their access to certain applications. It is interesting to think of the Internet’s future in the Cycle.

    This also could have vast implications on journalism. The printing press was never dominated by one organization with specific corporate interests, but the Internet has the potential to be. So what happens to a journalism industry that is now so heavily dependent on open Internet access for dissemination and consumption of news? Will the industry collapse under a monopolistic, restrictive Internet provider? These are all points to think about moving forward.

  13. “Every Age thinks it’s the modern age but this one really is.” This 1876 quote from Tom Stoppard in The Invention of Love really struck me—compared to the age in which we’re living, the 19th century seems so archaic its easy to forget that back then, technological changes felt just as revolutionary to them as ours do to us now. The Internet has changed the way we do just about everything. It is completely pervasive in American society and our daily routines and interactions. Even though I’m part of a generation that grew up with the Internet (and I mean that as in the Internet grew up with us as well), it’s enormous presence still frightens me sometimes. Though it has created so many incredible opportunities, it took over our world and lives so quickly I fear it could change society for the worse before we have a chance to consider its impact. However, reading the introduction in Master Control made me feel comforted as I realized there have been technological changes in the past 150 years that felt just as radical, yet people’s inherent natures remained virtually unchanged.

    As for the cycle of control proposed by Wu, I believe we can see that happening to the Internet now. There used to be various search engines (Ask Jeeves?), e-mail hosts and ways to engage socially, such as chat rooms and Myspace. Now these three main uses of the Internet are controlled almost exclusively by Google and Facebook. Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before Google buys Facebook.

  14. This was an interesting read. I never really thought about the history of inventions in terms of oscillation. I mainly thought of it in terms of the great inventions and their impact on society. It really puts things in perspective to write about the history of inventions in this way because you realize how often history repeats itself. It also gives you something to look forward to when a new dynamic invention presents itself. Wu believes that the same thing that happened to the telephone and radio will happen to the internet; that it will be controlled by a sort of monopoly.

    What struck me as interesting was Wu's explanation of inventors. We often romanticize inventors, particularly lone inventors. We don't really hear about simultaneous inventors and this also speaks to the idea of being "in the right place at the right time." Johann Philip may have possibly invented the telephone before Bell but he never got an prominence because he wasn't in a position to. In Bell's case, his main financial backer was a rival to Western Union. Therefore, his invention was useful in bringing down Western Union and their monopoly on the telegraph.

    5 years from now I think I'll remember remember Wu's comments on the importance of the right distance from monopolies in order to disrupt them. I will remember this to see if it holds true with future inventions. I will also remember the notion of alternative histories; "We sometimes treat the information industries as if they were like other enterprise, but they are not, for their structure determines who gets heard" (13).

  15. When we watched Tim Wu’s interview in class the other day, I found it to be a little boring. So, I was surprised when I took a general liking to the first chapter of his book. A couple of things jumped out at me.

    Theodore Vail, the former president of AT&T, had an interesting theory of competition that really surprised me. He thought competition was a bad thing because it caused “strife, industrial warfare…” While I understand what he is saying, it’s hard to really agree with him because our society has been taught that competition is a positive aspect for all parties involved, both the producer and consumer. It encourages producers to make stronger products for reasonable prices. And it allows the consumer to choose what brand of product to consume. However, even today you can see the quarrels that come out of competition.

    I also liked Wu’s explanation of what he calls “The Cycle” of innovation. I think often our society is focused on creating the next best thing, but we seldom look back on the history and patterns of the innovations and innovators before us. I like how the different parts of the Cycle not only fit in with each other but rather seamlessly connect.

    As a whole the reading was fun because I enjoyed reading back on different times during history and remembering what is was like then, such as when NBC and CBS ruled television.

  16. Like my classmates I was especially taken with Tom Stoppard’s notion that “every age thinks it’s the modern age, but this one really is.” Wu’s first chapter makes several acute observations, most striking of which is the “cycle” of inventions: how what seems modern now will eventually be destroyed and re-imagined and how the nature of invention (creation, access, monopoly and access) along with modern concepts (multimedia presentations, instant long distance communication) are not really modern, but part of an old cycle designed for modern concepts.

    One thing I will remember five years down the line is the idea that the implementation of invention follows this Cycle. From cell phones, to internet providers to cars, innovation is life changing, profitable and antiquated when flaws in access motivate someone to create something better. The example back and forth between AT&T and Western Union illustrates how AT&T’s innovation created the company we know and sparked the created of products we use on a daily basis.

  17. I really enjoyed reading the first chapter of the book, and it helped being able to put a voice and face to the author since we watched an excerpt of him in class. Two major things stuck out to me after reading: the impact Western Union had on the 1876 election and of course the lawsuit that allowed Bell (and subsequently AT&T) to prosper. Throughout the various history classes I've taken I've always heard about that election and how important and controversial it was. I had no idea that a communications monopoly was deceiving the public and betraying its suitors by showing private telegraphs to Hayes and his party members. That's a pretty significant claim by Wu, and assuming it's true I can't believe it's never gotten play in my education.

    The David vs. Goliath metaphor seemed apt to me regarding the lawsuit by Veil and company. It's shocking to me that Western Union backed out of the telephone business and didn't have the foresight to see how the telephone could eradicate the telegraph. I understand Wu's point that it's easy to look back now and say that, but I feel that if Western Union had never given up and the lawsuit failed we could be behind where we are now as a nation technologically speaking.

  18. I really liked the way Wu describes the open and closed systems. I think he’s correct when he says that history is the best way to attempt to predict the future and I’m eager to read what he thinks will become of the Internet in the future.

    I think this passage will stick with me five years from now:

    “Every few decades, a new communications technology appears, bright with promise and possibility. It inspires a generation to dream of a better society, new forms of expression, alternative types of journalism. Yet each new technology eventually reveals its flaws, kinks, and limitations. For consumers, the technical novelty can wear thin, giving way to various kinds of dissatisfactions: a threat to the revenues of existing information channels that the new technology makes less essential, if not obsolete; a difficulty commoditizing (i.e., making a salable product out of) the technology’s potential; or too much variation in standards or protocols of use to allow one to market a high quality product that will answer the consumers’ dissatisfactions.” (10)

    But which way will the Internet go? It’s currently an open system, but we’ve already heard and felt rumblings of those who want it to become a closed system.

    In five years, I hope I remember how the Hayes campaign claimed victory despite having zero knowledge of the winner of the presidential election. Bold move, Hayes campaign. Bold move.