This 1921 fight between Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier is just one of tens of thousands of boxing matches that you can easily find today on YouTube. It was dubbed the “Fight of the Century” and was the first boxing match to gross over a million dollars. Tim Wu’s brilliant The Master Switch points to another important first:
One July afternoon in 1921, J. Andrew White paused before speaking the words that would make him the first sportscaster in history. White, an amateur boxing fan who worked for the Radio Corporation of America, stood ringside in Jersey City, surrounded by more than ninety thousand spectators …
In White’s hand was something unexpected: a telephone. It was fitted with an extremely long wire that ran out of the stadium and all the way to Hoboken, New Jersey, to a giant radio transmitter. To that transmitter was attached a giant antenna, some six hundred feet long, strung between a clock tower and a nearby building. The telephone White was holding served as the microphone, and the rickety apparatus to which it was connected would, with a bit of luck, broadcast the fight to hundreds of thousands of listeners packed for the day into “radio halls” in sixty-one cities …
What was planned now sounds quite ordinary, but at the time it was revolutionary: using the technology of radio to reach a mass audience. Today we take it for granted that the TV or radio audience for some performance or sporting event is larger than the live audience, but before 1921 such a situation had never occurred. This fight, in fact, would mark the first time that more people would experience an event remotely than locally.
Anyone who follows my book reviews on Goodreads (back when I still reviewed books on Goodreads) knows that I don’t heap praise on many books, but The Master Switch really is something of a masterpiece, especially given that it is a policy book. It has changed how I think about the role of communications technologies in history and in our daily lives; how they influence us, and how we in turn influence them. In Wu’s presentation of some of the basic ideas of the book at the Berkman Center (which I also recommend), he says he was motivated to write the book when he found out that I Love Lucy was regularly watched by around 50 million Americans. (Compared to around two million viewers today for a “popular” show like The O’Reilly Factor.) It is estimated that the episode “Lucy Goes to the Hospital” was viewed by 72% of all American homes with television sets. The next day Dwight D. Eisenhower was inaugurated president of the United States, which attracted just over half the number of viewers.
I admit that I’m a big fan of Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus theory, and especially his comparison of the amount of time it took to build Wikipedia (“around 100 million hours of human labor”) versus the amount of time we watch TV (“Americans watch about 200 billion hours of TV every year”).
I spend most of my time online reading, researching, and writing. Of course I could have done that as a teenager as well – only with books and paper. But for the most part I didn’t. I watched the Los Angeles Lakers, college basketball, and sitcoms that I can barely recall. (Though years of watching Northern Exposure may have influenced my decision to travel to Alaska after high school.)
However, I don’t want to portray myself as representative. Surely there are others of my generation who spent their adolescence reading books and writing their reflections in paper journals only to spend most of their time today on Facebook, porn sites, and icanhascheezburger.com. I also don’t want to dismiss some of the positive effects of sitcom television and the broadcast era, as Clay Shirky so eagerly does. (For Shirky Giligan’s Island is representative of all television.) Throughout I Love Lucy’s run on broadcast television, which shows the loving though dysfunctional marriage between a Cuban and a white, American woman, anti-miscegenation laws were still active in more than 15 states. To truly appreciate the impact on I Love Lucy on American society in the decade leading up to its greatest social transformation, I highly recommend this full-hour documentary by Kurt Anderson at Studio 360 (with some interesting commentary by Mellow Man Ace of Cypress Hill, a major part of my own youth culture in Southern California).
If popularity is to be measured in YouTube subscribers then Ryan Higa is the new king of pop. With nearly 3.2 million subscribers (that’s larger than Bill O’Reilly’s audience, remember), Higa has more dedicated YouTube followers than Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber.
In an age of ever-increasing media options, chances are slim that you saw the same show as your friends and colleagues. When The Cosby Show was at its peak in the late 1980s, the show’s audience was 30 million. Today, Two and a Half Men is the nation’s top-rated show, with 15 million viewers.
(I should admit that I also hadn’t heard of Two and a Half Men.) For a good introduction to the new NPR series I recommend Elizabeth Blair’s “Cultural Common Ground Gets Harder To Come By.”
The fragmentation of media and culture is something I’ve written about many times over the past eight years on this blog. But only after reading The Master Switch did I come to truly appreciate how much a common, national culture is rooted in media and communication monopolies. Here in Mexico the media monopolies Televisa and TV Azteca are still responsible for Mexico’s sense of a singular national culture. But things are starting to slowly change as their corrupt political relationships become complicated through political party competition and as the cultural impact of the internet takes hold. Still, I think that Mexico is probably a good 10 – 15 years behind the United States until we see more competition in the communications and media market and more fragmentation of culture.
The heart of The Master Switch is rooted in what Tim Wu calls “The Cycle,” in which new communication technologies (the phone, the radio, broadcast television, cable) begin with a phase characterized by openness, amateurism, and competition, and then steadily move toward closed, proprietary monopolies. The clear parallel – and the basis for the policy recommendations of the book – is the Internet, as it moves from its Wild West beginnings to a more closed chapter of major monopolies (Google, Comcast, Facebook, AT&T, Verizon, Apple).
At the end of Tim Wu’s talk at the Berkman Center he offers several observations to take into consideration when trying to predict whether the Internet will follow the same “Cycle” that he documents so well in telephony, radio, film, television, and cable. It is clear that he leans toward pessimism, which is easily understood given the recent proposal for “Internet fast lanes” by Google and Verizon, and the merger between Comcast and NBC.
My personal feeling is that a majority of Internet users probably will spend most of their time stuck in the major monopolies — online properties owned by Google, Facebook, Netflix, Apple, and Comcast/NBC. After all, it’s what most consumers want. Even those of us who have long declared our love for amateurism, still depend on the major Internet monopolies on a daily basis. However, I think that a growing minority of Internet users will continue to attempt to use the network to create pockets of independent, autonomous media, culture, conversation, and political accountability. Projects like Global Voices, Civic Commons, Wikipedia, and Kickstarter. Projects that go beyond what public-access television was in the 1980’s and really challenge the dominant influence of the major monopolies.
I hope that my prediction is in fact a self-fulfilling prophecy for my generation. I do believe that there is a subconscious human attraction toward monopoly, dictatorship, and empire. But a global, cultural shift is underway in which big is no longer beautiful, and my generation is pushing it forward. I hope that we don’t fall back.
Update: News that Apple is rejecting the Sony Reader app from it’s app store is just one more small piece of evidence for Wu’s pessemism; however, Adam Thierer has a thoughtful counter-argument, noting that the “monopoly bogeyman” is a card that has been played many times before by Wu’s intellectual circle.