The Big Picture

 Introduction and interview by Jeffrey Toobin.

There are always a handful of law professors whose influence transcends the academy. Tim Wu, who joined the Columbia Law School faculty in 2006, is one of those rare few, and he practices and studies in perhaps the hottest legal field of all—the fast-changing law of telecommunications. Wu’s latest project takes a look back at how the law has shaped the technologies of the past and present, and in this conversation, we look ahead to new paths for the future.
JT / You are working on a new book. Tell me about it.

TW / It’s an intellectual history of communications systems in the United States. It’s the story of the 20th-century birth of film, radio, the telephone, and the laws and ideas that shape what the media becomes.

Very roughly, these media are born into chaos, and then become highly concentrated empires by the 1930s—in line with the economic principles dominant in those times. That lasts until the 1970s, when the first attacks come from things like cable television, and then all hell breaks loose in the 1990s and 2000s.

JT / Is it your view that technology caused the communications networks to be built the way they were, or were they more an act of will by the people who were running them?
TW / That’s the central puzzle in the book. Is it destiny, or is it our ideas that shape the future? I am firmly of the view that the ideas drive the history of the media—that the technology made it easier, but that the ideologies of the time shape the way Americans end up communicating.

You can see this clearly in the 1920s and ’30s. That is an age where centralized systems are seen as the ideal—whether the Ford Motor Company, or the planned economy of the Soviet Union. The thinking is that you really have to consolidate everything and plan things from the center. The Bell System—a government-supported monopoly—becomes the perfect, shining example of what a centrally controlled communications system looked like.

I think that what people see as the future has an enormous influence on what they design in the present. The future was to be one of perfect, centralized corporations and even economies, and so we built our media in that image.
JT / I’m particularly interested in your take on the phone model.

TW / In the book, I say that a country’s communications system varies by being more or less centralized—that’s one of the central themes. What you’re calling the “phone model” is the Bell System, one of the most centralized systems of mass communications ever designed. It is exceeded, however, by the network TV and radio models at their height. At its high point, in the mid-1950s, for instance, 83 percent of American TV households were tuned into an episode of The Ed Sullivan Show. Even Barack Obama or the Super Bowl cannot match that. 
JT / And what caused that model to break down?
TW / I think it’s the same things that caused the socialist state to break down, and some of what caused some of the welfare state to break down, and the same things that caused a lot of giant U.S. companies to run into trouble. The truth is that you lose as well as gain with massive centralization. Friedrich Hayek, the economist, understood this best: When decisions are made from the center, you lose the benefits of local information.
When the Soviet Union would decide exactly how much grain would be produced, the central bureaucracy was not in a good position to know everything. In the media world, it was just a guess that all Americans actually wanted to see I Love Lucy, and a pretty rough guess. And if you just have one centralized person deciding all of that, your decisions are often off. So that’s the problem of centralized systems.
JT / And what was the beginning of the end for that network model with respect to TV and telephone?
TW / Much changed in the ’60s and ’70s. There was an enormous backlash against centralized commercial systems. In my book, it is the invention of cable, the birth of independent film, and, of course, the mass Internet that begin the great challenge to the media empires of the 20th century.
Cable, to take one example, is a more interesting story than you might think. There was a time in United States history when intellectuals believed cable was the hope for the future, with the potential to liberate the nation. It’s sort of funny to think that in the 1960s a certain type of intellectuals thought of Playboy and cable TV as two beacons of a new age. That sense seems to have receded somewhat.
JT / So it was very explicitly based on a diversity idea.
TW / The reaction to centralized media was more than that. There was a movement that believed something had gone wrong with this whole system of centralized organization that everybody had fallen in love with from the ’20s through the ’60s or so. In the media world, it led to things like PBS and NPR, but also cable television, the invention of the Internet, and the beginnings of independent film. I see it as all connected.
JT / So cable comes in, and then what happens?
TW / Cable is kind of a halfway revolution in a sense. It doesn’t fully deliver on this promise of being the medium that connects the people to the people. It’s sort of like a bigger version of network news. That’s what’s interesting about the Internet: It’s trying, at its best, to be something that is a medium connecting people, everybody. So it’s a much more radical experiment.
JT / As you were talking about the difference between cable and broadcast, I was thinking ahead to the Internet, which does sound like a fairly complete next step in that direction. But one thing you have often written about and talked about is that even the Internet is subject to these forces of centralization.
TW / In an almost Hegelian fashion, just as centralized systems sow the seeds of their own downfall, the most radically decentralized systems, like the Internet, create a pressure toward centralization. Let me explain. Let’s say you’re interested in Olympic weightlifting. The irony is that the best way to search for diverse content on weightlifting is to consult Google, a highly centralized search engine. Another example is Wikipedia—there is just one Wikipedia, but millions of people work on it. There is a strange way in which a certain type of centralized figure can create radically decentralized content.
JT / Well, one version of what you’re saying is that there is something about capitalism that pushes all technologies toward decentralized markets. Is that a fair take?
TW / My point is a little different. It’s more that I’m trying to capture, or describe, a long cycle of centralization and decentralization that I see in the media industries. 
We think we live in the era of great media diversity. But turn the clock back to 1914: There were, on average, 11 movies made every day. 
JT / Eleven movies every day?
TW / Yes, and they were all kinds of movies. They had anarchist movies. There were movies meant for black-only theatres. They had Irish movies. It was a little bit like an early YouTube era. And it had that characteristic of being radically decentralized. It wasn’t a Paramount in the 1940s, with control over distribution. It was all completely a big, giant mess. And there were almost a thousand theaters in New York City. In other words, if you see some of what the current Internet media environment looks like, you see an echo of 1914.
JT / Let’s turn the discussion toward the future. You’ve got these models working. But which model is ascendant right now?
TW / The big question in the book, for me, is this: We’re in the age of obvious chaos and decentralization, where no entity can claim more than some tiny fraction of the American public as an audience. And the question is whether we have, right now, reached the peak of that. Let me sketch two possible futures.
In the first, we see a giant media crash in five years, where almost everybody goes bankrupt. Out of the wreckage emerge only a few giant consolidated media firms—Google, AT&T, and, say, GE/NBC/Universal, or something. We then enter an era of unprecedented centralization that makes the 1950s look like relative anarchy. For example, even in the 1950s, you still had radio, TV, and newspapers as relatively independent industries. That might go away, yielding a future of just a few information sources, and a loss between the whole idea of a print and broadcast media. 
A different future is one where the media market just becomes something it has never been since its inception, which is a truly competitive market. The giant, government-sponsored firms die, and today’s radical decentralization seems like not just some strange passing fad, but something much more close to how capitalism is supposed to operate—with its messiness, and chaos, and never-ending competition.
In that future, which resembles our present, you can’t create a new TV show and assume [you’ll get] 50 million viewers like in the 1960s. It’s a world where you’re constantly having to prove that you’ve got a good product in order to survive. That’s a future where something like Jay Leno’s Tonight Show can’t really survive—or if it does, it really has to be funnier than it is now. It means the end of the days when you could put anything up there and just kind of know you were going to survive.
What we may be on the edge of is just finally an open market in media and communications. It may be tough, and it may be weird, and it may look unattractive, but it’s actually far more sustainable over the long run, in the sense that capitalism tends to be more sustainable than communism.
JT / Is there anything the government can do to make sure that the latter and not the former happens?
TW / Yes. The government has always been picking winners in the media world because it hasn’t really wanted it to be a free market.
JT / Why do you say that? I think a lot of people would be surprised by that comment.
TW / Since the beginning, government has had more than a thumb on the scale, but rather a very visible hand, if you’ll forgive the mixed metaphor. In the 1920s, the goal was to have a “good” communications system, so it was all about the government choosing “winners,” like RCA, NBC, or AT&T, that it hoped would do a good job. In legal terms, this happens by licensing and franchising: You can’t be in these markets without the licenses. So it’s never been an open market.
JT / So should government continue to do this—to pick winners?
TW / No, I don’t think so, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think the state has a role. It may sound contradictory, but my belief is that government action can create an environment where winners emerge based on merit as much as possible. That may sound like a contradiction, but it’s not. 
JT / What does net neutrality—a phrase you invented—have to do with how the government should establish rules?
TW / Net neutrality stands for the idea that very basic anti-discrimination rules—common carriage is another word for it—are the foundation of an open media. My suggestion is that government should be interested in making the media world as open and competitive as possible. The way to do that is to maintain very basic, low-key anti-discrimination rules on the Internet. That’s what net neutrality is all about. 
My idea may sound reasonable, but it has run into lots of resistance. One reason, perhaps, is that common carriage is actually only a tradition in the telephone world—it has never made it to television, radio, film, or anywhere else. In those worlds, discrimination—choosing what content makes it, and what doesn’t—has been an industry standard.
What I’m proposing is consumers actually decide what applications and content survive and thrive. Believe it or not, that’s a radical proposition.
JT / So it sort of all comes back to net neutrality, which is a signature issue for you.
TW/ I guess it does. This book was inspired by my involvement in the contemporary net neutrality debate. I wanted to understand the big picture, and the long cycles in the structure of the media industries.
Jeffrey Toobin is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the senior legal analyst for CNN.

To view this story as it appeared in Columbia Law School Magazine (Fall 2008), please click here.