The Masters of the Switches

master switch cover

Why is it, dear worst-reader, that the older I get the easier it is to distract me? I mean, it happens all the time. When I’m walking Beckett, the killer pug, I lose focus of the little guy whenever any female passes by in a pair of jeans. When I’m putting up a Xmas tree, hanging those obnoxious bells and whistles, I think more about the Mustang I’ll never afford myself. And then there are the moments, while reading what should be a great book, that has been on my reading list for a long time, I’m taken away from it because the author references an old movie that I swear I saw once but according to the distracting research I do regarding that movie, I suddenly can’t remember if I actually did see it. This was so distracting in fact, that I took a break from the book and found the movie on iTunes to watch (again). And while watching this three hour piece of movie making magic I was totally distracted by the thought that, even though, according to Wiki and various other sources, which all claim that the movie was only recently made available to the public on DVD, I thought: but I saw this movie way back in the mid 80s. Didn’t I?


The movie is called Heaven’s Gate. According to Tim Wu, the author of the book The Master Switch, which, after numerous interruptions and distractions I just finished, the movie is the reason for one of Hollywood’s greatest film studio failures. But that’s neither here nor there. I’m just perturbed by the fact that I can’t remember with enough exactitude where and when I saw this movie. For after (re)watching it the other night I’m sure more than ever I saw it before. And allow me to say this distracting thing about that movie: this second viewing left me more in awe than the first. But when did I first see it? Come on. Come on. Think! It was either a screening at my University cinema in 1985 or on VHS in the early nineties while researching a subject for a play that I would never write. So I broke away from the book that couldn’t keep my attention anyway and very much enjoyed watching a movie that everyone should see. A few more worst-thoughts on Heaven’s Gate here.

Back to the book.

Tim Wu uses the United Artist debacle of the 80s as an example of how and why vertically integrated industries fail. And I take issue with that. United Artist didn’t fail because of vertical integration. It failed because #americant hadn’t yet established the standard of credit/debt as the sole means of consuming to survive. Obviously that’s a bold statement and I’m too lazy to provide enough ammunition in this worst-post to battle Mr. Wu on the subject–because I actually do want to say a nice thing or three about his book. But allow me this: There is one very important thing that Wu misses while explaining how some companies die and/or fade away because of whatever strategies they employ to earn more money than god. If United Artist had access to credit in the 80s like film studios do today then the measly sum spent on Heaven’s Gate would have been a drop in the bucket. In other words, at the time the collusion of government and, let’s say the Federal Reserve and Wall Street banking, hadn’t yet been established. It took till the end of the nineties to get to that point–I suppose.

There’s actually a whole Wiki page on the issue of Film Finance. And keep in mind, the word “finance” today is synonymous with debt. Go figure.

mci cardBut I’m off subject. Again. Distracted. And so. Let’s worst-write further on Mr. Wu’s idear of Net Neutrality and the less coined Separation Principle, two nuggets that Wu does a great job addressing but I think fails to ram home. First. Let me say this about Net Neutrality: Bullshit. That’s what Net Neutrality has become in the short time since its coinage. And I’m really sorry for that.That there is a debate regarding how information flows through the Interwebnets is both disgusting and astonishing. I remember vividly the monopolistic abuse of AT&T in the 70s and 80s. I don’t know what I would have done in college without my MCI card that allowed me to use practically any phone anywhere at rates I could afford–all on lines provided by the previous evil Bell monopoly. That #americant allowed a company like MCI to be gobbled up by the very system that it broke up is, well… #AMERICANT. On top of that, it feels like, because of the complexity of technology, politicians and dysfunctional corporates elites have easily confused the debate by turning Net Neutrality into a stump when it could be a majestic tree. Not only that, #americant has murdered people because of the underlying truth that is Net Neutrality as a whole. One only has to look at what happened to Aaron Schwartz. As far as the Separation Principle goes, well, again, sounds great, makes sense, but how do you get stuff like this across to a public that uses the Interwebnets like it used to use girly magazines in teen-age tree houses?

With that bit of worst-non-sense, I digress. The Master Switch is a great read even though I was often taken aback with the amount of text Wu wastes on certain topics. That is not a criticism of his writing, though. He really does a great job of holding together what is essentially a huge and disparate amount of information. I say disparate because I do not believe that the telephone industry in anyway has anything to do with the advent of what the Interwebnets has become (is becoming). The technology behind this stuff is irrelevant because worst-writer believes that content will always be at least one step ahead of context. Put another worst-way, a sculpture or painter already knows her/his great work of art is in that block of rock or bare canvas. And so. I could have done without Wu’s narrative of #americant early 20th century monopolies–although the bit about how Hollywood was founded is a nugget I’ll keep with me forever. That said, I guess I wish Wu would have spent more time ramming more stuff down the throats of the powers-that-be who are re-monopolising everything and who are also currently lavishing in their ability to ruin life for the rest of us in the name of greed-limiting access to what should be free: information.

Rant on.