Information Anxieties

11 Pages Posted: 30 Mar 2017

See all articles by G.S. Hans

G.S. Hans

Vanderbilt University - Law School; Center for Democracy and Technology

Date Written: May 1, 2011


The Internet has created an industry of aphorisms, cliches, and predictions, from "information wants to be free" to the viability of Twitter revolutions. The constant access and instant publication that the Internet allows have given every pundit an online soapbox.

This content explosion has created two related problems for consumers and industry: how to find valuable content online (whatever "valuable" means) and how to moderate the flow of the content itself. Tim Wu' argues in The Master Switch that the second issue of content control and mediation has been fiercely debated in the United States as far back as the invention of the telephone in the late nineteenth century. Consumers, creators, companies, and government officials have disputed the appropriate regulations for the devices and networks that deliver information to consumers.

In The Master Switch, Wu's "ultimate concern is the future of information." He proceeds through the history of several information technologies — telephone, film, FM radio, television, and the Internet — in order to examine what the future of information might be. Wu analyzes each industry from a historical and economic perspective, focusing particularly on the relationships between private firms, the government, and individual inventors. He also focuses on "those particular, decisive moments when a medium opens or closes."' Such moments reveal the "flaws, kinks, and limitations" 4 of each new technology and form part of "the Cycle."

Wu's theory of the Cycle serves as the book's main thesis. His "Separations Principle" also forms part of the thesis, but as Wu does not discuss the Separations Principle until the final chapter of The Master Switch, the Cycle serves as the book's central theme. Wu defines the Cycle as an oft-repeated progression from novel invention to pervasive industry, from open access to a highly-controlled closed system, and from innovation friendly to near dominance by a single firm. Wu argues that these tightly girded systems eventually open up again, beginning the Cycle anew. These feedback loops of competition and monopoly may seem typical for most industries in a capitalist economy. According to Wu, the special aspects of the information sector — especially its susceptibility to government-sponsored monopolies — make the Cycle much more damaging than in other sectors of the economy.

Suggested Citation

Hans, Gautam, Information Anxieties (May 1, 2011). Michigan Telecommunications and Technology Law Review, Vol. 17, No. 491, 2011. Available at SSRN:

Gautam Hans (Contact Author)

Vanderbilt University - Law School ( email )

131 21st Avenue South
Nashville, TN 37203-1181
United States

Center for Democracy and Technology ( email )

1634 Eye Street NW, #1100
Washington, DC 20006
United States

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