The Master Switch Symposium: Information Ideology and Corporate Culture

I particularly liked two things about The Master Switch. The first is that Wu’s history of information networks in the 20th century (though sadly not before) has a meaningful theory of corporate ideology, and uses it effectively. The book opens with a 1916 banquet in Washington, D.C. honoring Theodore Vail and the Bell system. The highlight of the evening was a mildly absurd demo: a phone call to General Pershing in El Paso:

“Hello, General Pershing!”
“Hello, Mr. Carty.”
“How’s everything on the border?”
“All’s quiet on the border.”
“Did you realize you were talking with eight hundred people?”
“No, I did not,” answered General Pershing. “If I had known it, I might have thought of something worthwhile to say.”

It’s a great scene, and it captures the spirit of particular company and a moment in history. The Bell system was as Establishment as you can get; the event was shot through with patriotic symbolism. The tech demos were gifts from a benevolent, stabilizing, centralizing AT&T to the American people, with Vail both basking in accomplishment and promising the future.

Wu’s point, here as throughout the book, is that you can’t understand AT&T, or its economic and social impact, or the way it shaped and struggled with the legal system, without appreciating the way it saw itself and the world. Plenty of writers have described the endless [back-and-forth(] between the forces of openness and the forces of closure. Wu’s history shows, repeatedly, how the different companies taking part in the struggle justified themselves — and how those essentially ideological justifications in turn frequently drove key corporate decisions.

The Master Switch doesn’t assert, as too many people who should know better do, that corporations simply act in the interests of their shareholders. Nor is this a work of hagiography or demonization; one does not walk away with the impression that Theodore Vail built the Bell system with his bare hands. Instead, Instead, it gives examples of companies so in thrall to a vision of their inevitable triumph or their social role that they dove headlong off a marketplace or regulatory cliff — and also examples of executives who won their companies’, their industries’, and their regulators’ support only through the subtle arts of persuasion.

Wu’s discussion of the Hush-a-Phone brings out the way in which AT&T’s “One System, One Policy, Universal Service” philosophy drove it into a legal fight it would have been better off ignoring. And who helped Hush-a-Phone poke the first, critical hole in AT&T’s policy against foreign attachments? Leo Beranek and J.C.R. Licklider, major figures in the development of the Internet. In another example, after successfully shaking off Edison’s control of film patents, the Independent movie companies fractured. Some of them were thrilled to entrench themselves as a new cartel controlling distribution; others much less so. Wu’s portraits of monopolists, insurgents, and particularly of insurgents-turned-monopolists illustrate the power of a compelling vision of how information can or should be distributed to shape, and sometimes to warp, the design of information empires.

The other thing I especially enjoyed? Wu cites both science historian Lawrence Lessing and Internet law scholar Lawrence Lessig.

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