Friday, April 08, 2011

Tim Wu's The Master Switch

From last week's Chronicle, there was a great story about Tim Wu's The Master Switch. The inventor of the phrase net neutrality, Wu now worked for the FTC trying to prevent the very thing he writes about in his book. Distilling, Wu looks across human history to discover a pattern in technology - every informational system eventually is taken over by a monopolistic cartel.

Why is this important in college sports? Think about the history of national contracts, first with the old ABC arrangement with "Division I" to today's BCS; the new digital rights agreements, for another example.

Wu defines "The Cycle" of technology, starting with a disruptive innovation - say the graphic internet - in which it must survive the Kronos Effect - dominant companies try to control or destroy innovations out of fear that the new technology might take over.

How does that gatekeeper impact college athletics? Well, who owns your digital rights now? They are your gatekeeper, and when they seek to flip your switch -- there you are. Apple is seeking similar positioning vis-a-vis the newspaper and magazine subscription industry. Read more on that here. Yes, much easier to subscribe in an iTunes format, but what happens if -- as Wu's dystopian vision says -- Apple deems you unsuitable.

Steve Jobs is not the government, and you joined up for his distribution system. He does not have to respect your First Amendment rights. YouTube can drop your content in a heartbeat. They can make any policy they want to infringe upon you -- because you clicked "OK" on the EULA.

Once they get past the initial challenge and enter the market, the disruptive technology is in a place of competition. Wu likens today's amateur blogger to the 1920s radio amateurs.

In the early pre-golden age of radio (that is, the early network phase in the 1930s), Wu made an interesting observation about that wide open time: "the craze spawned grand notions about virtual communities alleviating society's ills."

When the oligargy rises, the golden age gives way to something uglier - a controlled and orderly Internet with gatekeepers who decide and control who gets on. Or who has access.

For example here, shutting off other modes of communication to protect the old way. I wonder how Wu views the concept of TV Anywhere, as that seems like something that certain networks still can't wrap their heads around in some mix of Kronos Effect or desire to be the controlling gatekeepers.

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