Spin Cycle: On Tim Wu and Kevin Kelly | The Nation


Spin Cycle: On Tim Wu and Kevin Kelly

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Wu has some supporting counsel, particularly the economists Schumpeter and Friedrich von Hayek. Like both, Wu links innovation to free markets; and like Hayek, who could see a slippery slope coming before most of us could even find our feet, he suspects any nonmarket organization to be regressive. Move one inch toward some kind of vertical integration or centralized control, Wu seems to think, and true to Hayek's predictions we will slide down the greasy ramp to serfdom. Wu turns intermittently to a hostile witness whose testimony recalls the notion of "Godwin's Law." On the Internet, this "law" is used as shorthand for arguments that invoke Hitler as a trump card. Wu offers the Goebbels variation, putting Hitler's propaganda minister on the stand several times to drop the unsubtle hint that if you give government a slice of the communications spectrum, soon enough martial music and fanatical speeches will dominate the airwaves.

The Master Switch
The Rise and Fall of Information Empires.
By Tim Wu.
Buy this book.

What Technology Wants
By Kevin Kelly.
Buy this book.

About the Author

Paul Duguid
Paul Duguid teaches at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, and is a professorial...

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For all its defenders, privacy remains hard to understand.

Like any prosecuting attorney, Wu tells a story that sets aside complexity. Many of his villains, for example, started out as valiant entrepreneurs before becoming monopolists. The pattern makes one wonder whether Wu's good guys are simply losers in a nasty competitive world rather than angels who would have remained committed to openness, win or lose. The recurring tendency toward monopoly could be less the result of corporate villainy and government corruption and more a fundamental characteristic of Schumpeterian capitalism—in which case, Wu's innovative capitalism may need government to enforce the rules and temper monopolistic tendencies, while rewarding innovators with quasi-monopolistic intellectual property. For all its inefficiencies and corruptions, government is a key player on both sides of the Cycle, a twist in the story that Wu is reluctant to acknowledge. Remarkably, his celebration of market-driven innovation sidesteps the well-known fact that government subsidy and academic research, not capitalist innovation, produced the Internet. It was, moreover, a European-funded public research laboratory (CERN) that created the World Wide Web; a federally funded laboratory (NCSA) that produced the first viable web browser, Mosaic; and a public university (Berkeley) that "opened" UNIX software code and fought AT&T in court when the latter tried to keep it "closed." These are bedrock technologies of the Internet, beside which Google and Apple are mere homesteading cabins, but they get little showing in Wu's account.

Wu's distrust of government institutions is just as apparent in his portrait of the BBC. This government-protected, quasi-monopolistic media organization has undoubtedly been tactically subservient to political masters, trigger-ready in its smugness and monopolistic in its attitudes. And it's easy to make fun of the patrician condescension of its first general manager, Lord Reith, as Wu does. But if we are looking for alternatives to "mass-produced culture," as Wu seems to be, the BBC deserves a more evenhanded account. Compare BBC programming with the remarkably unimaginative output of commercial radio, whether from the networks, Sirius or Clear Channel, or even from the low-power stations that inspire Wu, and the BBC appears remarkably open and innovative. While reading The Master Switch, I listened to the "Proms," an annual musical festival that Reith brought under the sponsorship of the BBC in 1927 and that now is streamed free by the BBC online. This year, some seventy-six live concerts featured music from John Adams to Richard Wagner played by orchestras from the Danish National to the Penguin Cafe. Some twenty contributions were from composers born after 1950; eleven of the pieces were world premieres. Media historian Harold Innis argued that Reith's BBC offered an important counterweight to the partisan interests of commercial media. For all its many faults, it still does.

If public broadcasting is a little more complex than Wu's market-or-hierarchy argument, so too is Google. Wu portrays Google as a champion of an open communications system, one that encourages innovation online and eschews any form of monopolization. Google's ideals, he argues, remain "radical...utopian, even vaguely messianic." Yet it's noteworthy that Wu, who deplores the baneful effect of advertising on radio and television, manages to discuss Google without raising the company's dependence on advertising and the challenge that poses to "open" and unbiased search. As Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page once explained, "advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers." Brin and Page took this stance when, like so many of Wu's heroes, they were Davids taking shots at search engine Goliaths. Like the tales Sarnoff spun to historians, the image that Google's founders now convey of a firm benignly organizing the world's information and doing no evil belies Brin and Page's earlier observation and Google's near-monopoly on Internet searches.

Wu's faith in Google as a defender of an open Internet has suffered with the recent revelation that Google, Verizon and AT&T have been meeting secretly with the FCC to restrict, it is suggested, "net neutrality" and so carve up the space of future innovation. In a piece for Slate, a disenchanted Wu implored those at Google who still believe in its founding principles to "take back the firm." But the attempt to game net neutrality is likely to be part of company strategy rather than the sign of unprincipled leadership. If Wu expects innovation to be driven by market calculation, he can't expect Google to have a soul any more than we could expect AT&T to have a heart.

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