INTHE MASTER SWITCH, YOU DESCRIBE HOW SUCCESSIVE INFORMATION-AGE INVENTIONS LIKE TELEPHONE AND RADIO LED TO GOVERNMENT-SANCTIONED MONOPOLIES. BUT YOU ALSO WONDER A BIT ABOUT WHAT IT IS IN THE AMERICAN PSYCHE THAT LEADS US TO SUPPORT THOSE MONOPOLIES, WHETHER WE'RE IN ANY WAY IMPLICATED IN THAT. I definitely think there is a strong element of consumer behavior that leads to a number of small decisions, leading to the consequence of monopoly. And it basically goes like this: we put a premium, above almost anything, on convenience. We also like ease of use, reliability, and then a little lower down, quality. But convenience comes number one by such a huge margin. The Master Switch isn't about people being forced to use bad stuff. We love the stuff, and then that leads to monopoly. Google is our living example. Or Facebook. The more people use it, the better it gets, and the more resources it has to make it better and better.
The other aspect — a slightly darker aspect of it — is I also think there's sometimes a kind of a worship of leaders, or of size, or of the great company. We had a revolution against the monarchy but there's still certain aspects retained where we love and venerate the leaders. I think it's part of human nature.
YOUR BOOK IS A HISTORY OF TELECOMMUNICATIONS IN THE 20TH CENTURY AND ITS IMPLICATIONS FOR THE 21ST, BUT IT'S A STORY WITH A PURPOSE. CAN YOU TALK ABOUT YOUR MOTIVES? As someone who worked in the tech industry, I think tech people like to pretend we have no history, and that everything we do — because we invent new things — is unprecedented. And I guess I'm coming back from the past to give a warning for the future. One of the inspirations for this book, it may sound a little far fetched, was the history of the American republic. Which is to say, when the American founders built the republic, they were very aware of the fact that every republic had turned into a dictatorship. Everything was open and utopian and [everyone] had these great ideas, and then pretty soon some dictator would take over. This was a natural problem, and I think that's also true in information markets. The idea of the American Revolution and of the Constitution was, like, let's not let nature take its course. What's natural is not always what is good. If we want certain values, we have to, for example, create an inefficient government. We complain about Congress being gridlocked, but of course it was part of the plan to engineer some inefficiency into the system. And in tech we're extremely resistant to that idea.
YOU WERE A STUDENT OF LAWRENCE LESSIG, WHO HAS ADVOCATED THAT WE BLOW UP THE FCC. AND YET YOUR POLICY ADVICE HAS BEEN, BY ALL ACCOUNTS, VERY INFLUENTIAL AT THE FCC. The FCC has a poor track record over its history. It was born to tame radio. Then its next role was defending AT&T against monopoly, it has defended broadcast TV against cable. Although it's often been well-meaning, it's mostly been something of the cat's paw of industry. On the other hand, it's the only oversight we have. It also has done good things in its history. In a lot of ways it got the Internet started: it made the room for companies like AOL and CompuServe to develop a mass Internet, and for companies like Hayes to build modems, which were pretty pivotal. They would have never succeeded with Bell controlling what they did. So the FCC is the government oversight we have, and if you blow 'em up, you end up with no government oversight. And the last decade or so has shown that doesn't work so well. I am wary of them, but I think you have to have some public oversight or things go really crazy.