Innovation in a World of Corporate Greed

Our society has come a long way in regards to the formation of mass communication and new technologies. We now have access to incredible inventions, like virtual reality headsets or devices that allow us to access information within seconds, but we had to start somewhere to get where we are today. There were many brilliant minds that helped spark the technological revolution of the early 20th century, however, it surprisingly wasn’t always an easy battle bringing those ideas to life. The Master Switch by Tim Wu explores the history of how the foundations of our communication and media systems were built. Wu also goes into depth about the invention of certain technologies, like the telephone, radio and television, was largely affected by monopolies and corporate power. He makes note that over time, big businesses wanted to control ideas and new inventions because they would be potential threats to the already existing, profitable systems they had been using.

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When discussing Bell Labs, which was the main research and development facility for the notorious monopoly AT&T,Wu states:

“The output of Bell Labs was practically restricted to sustaining inventions; disruptive technologies, those that might even cast a shadow of uncertainty over the business model, were simply out of the question” (Wu 107)

There has been countless times when big media corporations purposefully prevented innovation of technologies solely for corporate greed, wanting to keep their already profitable systems the same. Now this idea of turning down brilliant minds may seem ridiculous, but it unfortunately happened and not much was done to stop them. One example Wu talks about is Henry Tuttle’s invention of Hush-A-Phone in the early 40s.

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Hush-A-Phone advertisement from the mid-50s

This product was a scoop shaped speaker that connected to the end of a telephone, meant to muffle the sound of the phone, in turn giving the user privacy so those around them wouldn’t be able to hear their conversation. Seeing this invention as a threat to their business, AT&T sued Tuttle on the basis that their product was illegitimate, didn’t actually work and was pointless for consumers. The mere fact that they thought it was necessary to spend their time and money to take this to court in order to prevent Tuttle from succeeding is unheard of.

Another example of monopolies attempting to prevent creativity and innovation within the information industry is Edwin Armstrong’s invention of FM radio. Armstrong was an ambitious inventor that developed the technology that we use today known as “frequency modulation” or FM radio. However, before FM radio was accepted into the world of technology once again AT&T did whatever it could to prevent Armstrong’s invention from becoming a reality. The media giant saw FM radio as a threat to their long distance telephone lines and because of this, once again did everything in their power to stop FM radio from being used. Armstrong spent years in the research lab perfecting this invention, only to be shot down by once again at the hands of corporate greed. Unfortunately, Armstrong never was able to see his invention be brought to light as he took his own life, not able to face the reality of the greedy businesses that controlled the communication world.

Now these are just some of the countless times innovation has been stopped at the hands of corporate power. Without thinking outside of the box and bringing entrepreneurial ideas to life, we wouldn’t have the amazing technologies we have to this day. Instead of denouncing these ideas and innovative work, we should try and encourage it and let creative minds do what they do best.  

 

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