June 22, 2008

Carr, Nicholas. The big switch: Rewiring the world, from Edison to Google. New York: Norton, 2008. 276pp.

This is a book with a profoundly split personality. It's like two books warring in the bosom of one volume. It's a bit hopeful and visionary but it's also cranky and complaining.

And it's not like the author Nicholas Carr is any stranger to controversy. He's famous for stirring up a hornets nest in the business IT community with the article IT Doesn't Matter in the May 2003 Harvard Business Review, followed up by the book Does IT Matter? Information Technology and the Corrosion of Competitive Advantage. More recently, he's quite infamous for the Atlantic Monthly article Is Google Making Us Stupid?

So, he's a guy that doesn't pull any punches.

So, what's The Big Switch all about? Ostensibly, it a book that compares the rise of utility computing with the development of the delivery of electric power to the USA as a mass utility. In other words, during the late 19th century, electricity went from something that mostly industrial plants provided for themselves in dedicated generators to something that a centralized utility provided for everyone, for a price. And so computing power has evolved as well. Once upon a time, computing power was chained to a single organization via a mainframe computer or to a single desktop via a PC. Carr's book describes the incredible recent developments where so many companies are now outsourcing their IT and raw computing needs to utility-like providers with vast server farms. Cloud computing, it's often called. Computing power and processes are commoditized the same way electricity was a century or more earlier. Amazon Web Services, a lot of what Google does with products like Docs. This was a very interesting part of the book. I knew a bit about utility computing but not that much and I certainly didn't know a lot about the electrification of the continent.

That's the first half of the book.

The second half is a darker look at the world of Web 2.0. Carr takes a very hard look a the wide-eyed optimism so prevalent among web-heads. What about the job losses and dislocations coming from new business models and paradigm shifts? The fallout from the shift in marketing and media production for news and cultural products. The balkanization and narrowing of taste due to ultra-narrowcasting media and the amplification of negativity and trolling. The potential for terrorists and others to use the web for attacks and violence. The tension between privacy and control on the net, particularly the corporatization of virtually every last web space and censorship and control by totalitarian governments. Carr makes a lot of very good cautionary points in this part of the book. However, I didn't find all of it very convincing. As well, in a lot of cases, he's really complaining about something where the horse has already left the barn. There's no going back. It's certainly an interesting counterpart to Shirky's Here Comes Everybody or to Wikinomics, and would make an interesting book to read with those as part of a Web culture course.

Overall, this is a book I would recommend quite highly. The first part has a lot of interesting information and history that leads into some interesting ideas about the future of computing power as a utility. The second part, covering the dark side of the Web 2.0/Web revolution is less convincing but still makes many compelling cases that cannot be easily or lightly dismissed.

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