The Master Switch

Context Book Report: The Master Switch by Tim Wu

In The Master Switch, Tim Wu compared the turn-of-the-century telephone network mechanism that’d connect anyone to the person, and thus the information they sought, with other technologies developing since aiming for the same objective. According to him, the search engine Google’s come the closest, being able to connect anyone to any information available on the Internet. The author also discusses the Cycle, how despite disruptive innovations will change the course of information technology –for example: the telephone replacing telegraphy, or cable television rewriting mass media-, systems in power will only fragment to return as strong as ever, like American Telephone and Telegraph Company decimated to return at the dawn of the millennium as AT&T, a powerful telecom and mass media conglomerate.

Designating information science’s evolution as a ‘cycle’ seems tongue-in-cheek. Though antiquated media are still practiced –like woodcarving, calligraphy, and restoring typewriters for practical use- globally we are relying on digital devices for our increasing information dependence. Unless something akin to the collapse of civilization happens, there’s no reason to anticipate chisel, ink, and the mechanical to dominate again.

Thus, instead of ‘the Cycle’, it is more pertinent to use ‘the Progression’.

‘Progression’ is everything the hyperlinked library stands for. Daily, programs and philosophies are recoded so information can be better stored and retrieved, with understanding left to the stakeholder’s willingness to stand in awe of they can learn and achieve. Though technologies have, and still are developed for commercial gain, it will always be up to the seeker to render these products useful, and therefore profitable. The stakeholder will always steer the way, and librarians, those who wish to retain agency in the discipline and not simply along for the ride, will open as many avenues as they’re able to the curious.

Perhaps that’s what underlies AT&T’s return to ascendency. Seemingly anticipating America’s headlong dive into digital, they muscled in alongside the likes AOL Time Warner by joining forces with Comcast to control not just broadband, but also all aspects of production and distribution of artistic content (Sutel, 2001). The inheritor of Theodore Vail’s brainchild not only nearly predicted how the country would consume their preferred type of information, popular culture wirelessly/fiber optically, but also took part in tempting consumers with high definition programming (AT&T, n.d.).

As librarians we must also realize that technologies, and so, too, our professional advancements, can be disruptive only as long as they’re developed as services. Tim Wu discusses Steve Wozniak’s invention of the ‘blue box‘ -the experience which paved the way for developing the Apple I– as a way to fulfill the need for people to more easily communicate over long distances (Wu, 2010, p.273), and now with Skype, Zoom, and all manner of chat applications, not many with a smartphone, tablet, or desk/laptop connected to the internet would pay to talk long distance over a landline anymore. This isn’t to say we, as information professionals, should endeavor to be clairvoyant, but to remain open to suggestions, keep asking after our users’ experiences, and adopt mindful attitudes towards our colleagues’ professional wellbeing. Because hyperlinked as we aim to be, we won’t truly achieve or maintain such a state until we welcome all information –documents, feedback, and our relationships- to return for our reevaluation.

(*laughs*) And that’s the ‘cycle’.

This won’t be easily achieved, because despite the prevailing earnestness to announce one’s thoughts on social media, many have a penetrating reticence over speaking up. Thus, the first step to continue growing a strong hyperlinked library would be to build programs that can help to ease judgment and embrace new technologies and philosophies (Glaser, 2018). Former efforts to showcase culture specific books during festivals have so much more room now to become on-site graphics displayed on high definition monitors with entire websites thumbnailed with videos, ebooks, and/or links to more databases.

References

AT&T. (n.d.). The best of live TV and on demand, now with no annual contract. AT&T TV. https://www.att.com/tv/

Glaser, J. (2018, 22 May). “Why we don’t speak up: People fear rejection in any form of human interaction.” Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/conversational-intelligence/201805/why-we-don-t-speak

Sutel, S. (2001, 21 December). “AT&T Comcast merger: And the loser is…” Sun. https://products.kitsapsun.com/archive/2001/1221/0052_at_t_comcast_merger___and_the_los.html

Wu, T. (2010). The Master Switch. Alfred A. Knopf

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