February 14, 2008

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The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google, by Nicholas Carr (2008, W.W. Norton & Co., 278 pages)
By Lisa Parsons news@hippopress.com

The Big Switch starts as an exploration of technology history but turns into a depressing and not terribly original warning about the world’s going to hell.net by way of handbasket.com.

I’d expected more continuity between the Edison story and the Google story, given the book’s title, but the Edison part merely sets a small stage for the larger Part 2, “Living in the Cloud,” which is all about the Internet, a.k.a. the “World Wide Computer.” The common thread is that a new technology becomes a centrally located and widely distributed utility.

There was a time when if you wanted electricity you had to generate it on your own premises. Farmers had their own little electric power stations. The same will happen, is happening, with computing power, says Carr, a former Harvard Business Review editor and the author of Does IT Matter? Eventually “Having our files and software locked into our PC’s hard drive will be an unnecessary nuisance,” Carr says, and “the personal computer [may] become a museum piece, a reminder of a curious time when all of us were forced to be amateur computer technicians.”

This isn’t a brand new idea, but Carr does a nice job with examples: already you can build your “own” computing system by dragging and dropping icons of its elements on a Web site, letting the physical reality happen somewhere else (and even then it’s a layer of virtual reality happening somewhere else, and an underlying physical reality that looks nothing like what you’re envisioning), courtesy of a company called AppLogic; and Amazon rents out computing power by the hour — it’s called Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud, EC2.

How wonderfully empowering, just like electricity is, for the average consumer, Carr says, and yet … the notion of the Web as a utopia of freedom and empowerment is “at best a half-truth.”

“Computer systems … put enormous power into the hands of individuals, but they put even greater power into the hands of … institutions whose business it is to control individuals.” Yes, the Web empowers us all, but those two kindergarteners who sold YouTube to Google are laughing all the way to the online bank. The Web empowered you and me to create their Web site, and thus their fortune, for them.

Having driven home that depressing point, Carr spends some time echoing the by-now-familiar argument that “More choices don’t necessarily mean better choices” and that the Web isolates us by entrenching us in our own views. Oh, and he harps somewhat on the point that no one reads newspapers anymore and the net will put real journalists out of work.

I opened The Big Switch hoping to read about how, exactly, Google and the net will become utilities, and what our daily lives will be like once the transformation is complete, and how this is like the electrification of the world. When the Internet goes down will it be like when the power goes down? Will there be crews on the streets and a phone number to call? Public or private? Where will my personal documents live? How secure will they be?

This is not so much what the book is about. What it is about, if anything, is mostly stuff you’ve heard before, and better.

I did learn a few cool factoids — how Thomas Edison tried to bury his business competitors by associating them with the electric chair, for instance* — but I was distracted by some contradictions and dissatisfied with the book’s overall lack of depth. One minute Google is so redundantly built it’s failsafe; the next minute the whole Internet is worryingly vulnerable. Carr makes broad leaps to support his arguments, e.g. that “Electrification hastened the expansion of America’s mass culture, giving people a shared set of experiences through popular television shows, radio programs, songs, movies, books and magazines, newspaper stories, and even advertisements.” Sure, electrification sped up mass culture. But … electricity gave people a shared set of books and magazines? Didn’t America have its shared books and newspaper stories before electricity? The arguments here feel like they’re made too hastily. There’s a sense of cherry-picking.

One idea resonated with me, but it wasn’t Carr’s own; he quotes Kevin Kelly (author of New Rules for the New Economy in 1997; see www.kk.org) as saying that “In 2015 many people, when divorced from the Machine, won’t feel like themselves — as if they’d had a lobotomy” — I know, right? — and says Kelly believes we are headed toward “the submergence of our minds and our selves into a greater intelligence.” Again, not a new idea, but Kelly put it well. If you want to delve into this idea, however, I’d recommend Natural-Born Cyborgs, by Andy Clark (Oxford University Press, 2003), which talks about how we already are submerged in greater intelligence and it’s not as scary as it sounds (p.s. your wristwatch is part of the Borg.)

Another point worth noting, and duly if briefly noted by Carr, is that the reason this is all inevitable is the economy, stupid. (A similar point is made in the new book Stirring It Up by Stonyfield Yogurt CEO Gary Hirshberg — he says we will all go green, because and only because it’s the economically beneficial thing to do.) There’s no arguing with the forces of cheapness.

The Big Switch leaves us with a very vague, somewhat uneasy sense of what’s coming, but no greater grip on it. This feels like an attempt to capitalize on the success of Carr’s earlier book (which was based on a kerfluffle-raising Harvard Business Review article he wrote), without doing a lot of new thinking.

For chewier ideas, look elsewhere.** D+Lisa Parsons
* Kind of like the 1980s’ VHS-vs.-Betamax war, the early 1900s had a DC-vs.-AC war. Edison was heavily invested in direct current; Westinghouse, for instance, used alternating current, which was arguably safer and ultimately won out. A fascinating telling of the story is Mike Daisey’s “Monopoly!” monologue (www.mikedaisey.com), which is excerpted in Public Radio International’s Studio 360 podcast dated Jan. 25, titled “Nikola Tesla: Strange Genius” (www.studio360.org).
** Do, because the ideas Carr is dancing around here are interesting in the hands of deeper thinkers.