More from the Master Switch

I [wrote]( the other day about some thoughts about local energy minima as a function of innovation, sparked by Timothy Wu’s *The Master Switch*, one of my current reads. I wanted to capture a fabulous quote and story about one of the iterations of Wu’s *cycle*, dealing with the *radio telephone*.If you haven’t read/are reading this book, go get it. It’s very captivating. Wu has this idea of a cycle for information network technologies, that have come and gone, swinging like a pendulum between free and open to closed and monopolistic. He starts his story with the well known sustained innovation vs disruptive innovation of the telegraph vs the telephone, which you can also find as a case study in Christansen, another great read.

Of course, I have always gone back to the days of [pamphleteering]( as proof that with a particular technology, i.e., the printing press, which disruptively commodified the means of making large numbers of relatively (relative to hand-written copies) cheap units to the average joe, away from the institutions that had the labour capacity and production process in hand. This would have been Church and State (mainly monarchies) institutions. But, bam, suddenly the pamphleteer started to make small runs and ideas started spreading, orders of magnitude faster than scientific letters as a vector of transmission during the Renaissance.

The modern analogue, for me, is, firstly [DTP](, and then, blogging in its more modern form. Opinions, some informed, some not, propagating cheaply through larger and larger populations of consumers. Larger and larger marketplaces of ideas.

Wu moves onto radio, with some new information for me. I had no idea that radio broadcasting had started as a piggyback to the telephone. People were using the telephone as the microphone and sending the signal to an antenna. The first ever *event* that had more *remote* participants than local was the [Dempsey-Carpentier fight]( in 1921. It was received in *radio halls* across the U.S. Locally, there were some 90,000 spectators. Nationally, there were some 61 cities. And, amazingly, the entire contraption was a single telephone handpiece connected, via a very long single wire, to an antenna. And, the fight ended after four rounds, which was fortunate, since the equipment blew up shortly afterwards!

And, of course, to Wu’s argument, radio telephony was wide open. Following this success in 1921, there were an estimated 2 million broadcast-capable radio sets sold by 1924. Explosive growth seeding democratization of the technology. And following this, the thinkers started thinking how this would improve global society. It would empower and inform voters in democracies, putting them in closer contact with their leaders (although asymmetrically. We would need IP transmission and upper layers of protocols to make it symmetric). And it was going to affect culture and education as well. Here is the quote that sparked this post:

>Whatever he most desires — whether it be opera, concert, or song, sporting news or jazz, the radio telephone will supply it. And with it, he will be lifted to greater appreciation. We can be certain that a new national cultural appreciation will result … The people’s University of the Air *will have a greater student body than all of our universities put together* (emphasis added). Alfred N. Goldsmith, Director of research at RCA, 1922.

Here we see, in 1922, the same sort of language used to describe the effect of later technology trends (CBT, VHS, Internet) on educating the masses. And, to be fair, I think that each iteration has widened the pool of learners to larger scales. Still there are great questions about the quality and impact. But some knowledge must be better than no knowledge. Aggie Booth, a colleague with whom I worked on [Bodington](, worked as a lecturer/director at the University of the Caribbean, I think [this one]( in the 70’s and they were using radio as broadcast and peripatetic visits by lecturers to all of the Islands. But I had no idea someone was thinking of this, especially someone with the power to help stand it up, in the 20’s.

But it, like most of the other iterations, failed to capture the ideal of a fully enriched learning environment. Perhaps the internet will achieve this, but that debate still continues.


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