Nonfiction Short Take: The Network – Scott Woolley

This brief, eye-opening business/tech story reads like the Flash Boys of the TV age and has the narrative verve Bill Bryson (indeed Sarnoff was a character in Bryson’s One Summer). While an entertaining history of the development of mass communications over the last century it also serves as a cautionary tale in the current battle over net neutrality and whether or not the people or corporations will control the internet.

It’s the story of two visionaries—David Sarnoff, an immigrant who rose to control RCA—and Edwin Armstrong, called “the most prolific inventor since Thomas Edison.” In Woolley’s telling it’s not overstatement to say that these two men who almost single-handedly founded the modern mass communications. Their friendship and the subsequent battle for control of the airwaves led to Armstrong’s suicide and to an argument over the commodification of communications that remains hotly debated today.

In this short but magnetic narrative, Woolley shows how, despite their differences, the men connected through their mutual understanding of ‘the power and possibility of the invisible waves.’ Both figures were truly visionary, especially Sarnoff, who led the charge on radio broadcasting and color television and articulated a vision that prophesied the Internet. Yet for both Sarnoff and Woolley, innovation was obstructed by corporate interest, and government agencies were unwilling to intercede. This classic struggle—visionaries with revolutionary ideas and capabilities against established interests—drives the book’s narrative. By focusing on a handful of characters, Woolley avoids getting bogged down in excessive technological and scientific detail, legal nuances, and biographical minutiae, and instead crafts a highly readable, plot-driven narrative that illuminates the genesis of innovations that many readers take for granted.”
Publishers Weekly

 “The past envisions the future in a short book that spans a century of revolutions in communications….Woolley begins with the suicide of Armstrong, who felt betrayed by Sarnoff, and circles back to his death about two-thirds of the way through, leaving the stage to Sarnoff alone. Drawing from court transcripts, the account of the rift between the former friends has the dramatic tension and narrative propulsion of a historical novel…”
Kirkus Reviews

The Network: The Battle for the Airwaves and the Birth of the Communications Age (9780062242754) by Scott Woolley. $26.99 hardcover. 4/26/16 on sale.

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