Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Big Switch by Nicholas Carr

Are IT departments obsolete?

Does the Internet, contrary to its promise of democratization and community-building, actually segregate us and exacerbate radical extremism?

Will we access Google via neural implants?

According to Nicholas Carr, the answer to all these questions is "yes."

I recently read Carr's excellent book The Big Switch: Rewiring the World from Edison to Google. As expected from the author of Does IT Matter? it describes major implications for the future of the IT sector. 

What was unexpected about this book was the insightful and rather distressing prediction of the negative impact of the "World Wide Computer" will have on society. For this reason, I strongly recommend it to everyone, not only those working in IT.

Carr begins the book with an interesting historical lesson on the electrification of the world, with an eye toward the analogous events in today's IT-centric world.

The technical parallels between electricity and modern IT are fascinating and obvious. Thomas Edison's plan for lighting the world was to have small electrical plants every couple blocks. He planned to make his money selling the equipment to these small neighborhood powerplants. His protege, Samuel Insull, however, realized the benefits of economies of scale, creating the modern electrical utility as we know it.

In Edison's model, every company had its own dedicated equipment for generating and distributing electricity, as well as the specialized personnel to support it. Insull created a system in which companies could avoid having their own equipment and staff, but instead get electricity more cheaply from a centralized source. The standardization of equipment, and a distribution method, allowed everyone to access electricity as a utility.

Information Technology is rapidly approaching the utility model. Utility computing, or "computing in the cloud," has been a buzzword for years, but hasn't been feasible. In the last couple years, we've seen the profit model begin to move from selling expensive equipment to individual organizations, to selling computing services run on somebody else's expensive equipment. 

Electricity moved to the utility model once a transmission method was developed- specifically, AC current, standard voltages, and the grid. IT has begun moving to the utility model as its transmission method, Internet and broadband, has become ubiquitous.

The ramifications for in-house IT departments are pretty straightforward: less emphasis onin-house servers and applications; more emphasis on network connectivity.

The ramifications for society are harder to predict, but there is some research emerging that paints a distressing picture. Carr cites Nobel-winning sociological research indicating that most people have a slight preference to be among people like themselves, and that over a long period, (e.g., in a housing market) segregation will result. In addition, a group of people with an opinion become more extreme in their opinion simply by talking to others with the same opinion. The Internet accelerates this segregation and extreme-ism because it is easy to move to another social group or virtual neighborhood. Evidence supporting this theory is found in the political blogosphere: most political discourse stays within its own ideological circle, and most blogs link to other like-thinking blogs. 

This flies in the face of the utopian descriptions of a democratizing, multi-cultural Internet which encourages interactions with people with differing viewpoints. 

To answer the question of whether Carr is just cynical, or whether we really are being naively optimistic, Carr draws parallels between the prevailing ideas at the beginning of electrification and the current ideas about the promise of future technology.

Thomas Edison's plans for electricity distribution and the incandescent lightbulb changed the world, but the ways in which it changed were not the ways that Edison or early adopters anticipated. Carr exhibits historical "electrical utopian" literature that predicted a life in which electricity eradicated the world of manual labor, crime, and poverty. He calls today's "cyber utopian" viewpoints (notably Kevin Kelly, Wired editor who inspired The Matrix) as being just as naive and misguided. The problem, Carr says, is that there are too many unintentional consequences. The hints of what we have already seen, such as people's tendency to search Google three or four times for the same fact instead of writing it down or remembering it, indicate a future in which we are "pancake people": all surface and no depth.

While reading the book, I found myself thinking that this completely supports Ray Kurzweil's prediction of the Singularity, but with a distopian interpretation. On introspection, I realized that I already feel a strange emptiness when disconnected from the net for too long, which Carr suggests will be common in the future as we rely on the World Wide Computer to do our thinking for us. (Yeah, I should probably look into that- it's not healthy.)

I also realized that in order to stay relevant in an IT world, I need to expand beyond servers and wires. As Daniel Pink says in A Whole New Mind, in the future we will need to be high-touch and creative, providing services that cannot be automated.

Although I would like to say that a better world awaits us in the future due to technology, I find myself persuaded by Carr's arguments that we are becoming shallow thinkers who are overly reliant on technology. Furthermore, a historical perspective indicates that humans seldom end up with what we intend. This disturbs me as a parent and an educator, and I find myself becoming philosophical and spiritual in my quest for answers. 

Like most worthwhile books, The Big Switch does not provide neat answers, but does ask important questions. We would be wise to take the time to ponder them.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating, Jon. Yet another book for my Amazon Wish List. Of course, since I'm so distracted by the Internet, I'll never make time to read any of the hundreds of wonderful books on that list!

    You probably have read Carr's article "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" in The Atlantic Monthly. If not, you should check it out, along with the commentary in the latest edition of The Edge.

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