by Bernard Golden

Nick Carr on “The Big Switch”

Jan 03, 20086 mins
Enterprise Applications

Nick Carr continues his assault on IT organizations in his latest book, “The Big Switch.” Unlike his previous book, “Does IT Matter,” however, in this book traditional IT is a wounded bystander, casually winged by Carr while he takes aim at his major target, which is the move to a centralized, webified information processing infrastructure.

I criticized “Does IT Matter” because it denigrated IT due to its inability to provide permanent competitive advantage to companies. I felt that Carr took down a straw man since no capability, whether IT, basic research, innovative marketing, or clever recruiting, can provide sustained competitive advantage. In a capitalist economy, there’s always someone coming after you, often by adapting your distinct advantage; consequently, competitive advantage is fleeting, no matter what its basis. Carr’s dominant metaphor for discussing this lack of competitive advantage was the rise and role of railroads, which, while interesting, was (to my mind) not directly applicable, since railroads don’t have a Moore’s Law underpinning them, enabling constant exponential functionality improvement.

Carr continues his intriguing use of historical antecedents in “The Big Switch,” with the primary example being the move to centralized electrical utilities from the original Edison vision of neighborhood-based generating stations. Likewise, Carr argues, computing is moving from company-based data centers to large utility computing infrastructures run by the likes of infrastructure providers (e.g., Amazon and its EC2 offering) and centralized services run by application providers (e.g., Google Applications).

Carr devotes no more than a few paragraphs to the role of IT organizations in this new centralized computing world, observing that IT organizations will be superseded by end user organizations taking computing into their own hands, aided by the availability of centralized utilities and applications.

I enjoyed reading the book very much, and am impressed by Carr’s ability to draw on historical developments to vividly depict the role of new technology developments in changing people’s lives. In the section on the move to power utilities, he describes the role of Samuel Insull in creating power companies; I had heard of Insull before but was not acquainted with his important role in creating the electrified society we live in. Likewise, Carr describes an early mega-water wheel, used to deliver competitive advantage to a company, later discarded in favor of centralized utility for factory power, which provided the inspiration for George Ferris when constructing his new contraption, the Ferris Wheel. Carr’s ability to weave together these events and people makes for an entertaining and informative read.

The second half of the book goes in a different direction, though. Having described the advantages of centralized computing, Carr begins to methodically outline its drawbacks: identity tracking, wrenching economic change as cheap content undermines traditional media businesses, community polarization as people increasingly turn to ideologically slanted web offerings, terrorists and rogue nations using cyberwar to attack our web-based economies, and, perhaps worst of all, government agencies and corporations using massive data capabilities to strip individuals of power and freedom. Carr closes by discussing the potential for computing to outstrip humans and become our master through artificial intelligence. In a way, the theme of the book seems to be a jeremiad about the future role of information technology in the world.

I found the book to be, ultimately, dissatisfying. Carr seems to have a curiously schizophrenic attitude toward IT: dismissing it in one book, decrying its omnipotence in another. In “The Big Switch” Carr does seem to grasp hold of the concept of Moore’s Law, which is continuously driving new capabilities in the use of IT; however, he seems to focus on all the downside with much less appreciation of the positive developments offered by all this computing capability. For some reason, while reading the second half of the book, I was reminded of dinner parties I’ve attended where the main conversation seems to be a rather sour dissatisfaction with world developments, with an underlying message that things would be much, much better if the world were only run by those of us sitting around the table.

For every drawback Carr outlines, another author could find positive examples that counterbalance, if not outweigh, the issue. For instance, the scary melding of humans and computing that threaten our personal identities — how about cochlear implants, which use microprocessor-based devices implanted in the skull to overcome deafness, used, by among others, Rush Limbaugh, who pursues a rigidly conservative approach to politics on, wait a minute, radio, which is one of the putatively broader traditional media being supplanted by single-perspective websites.

This book represents a common reaction to new technology developments, which is to bewail the potential dangers of the new, without recognizing that it’s always been like this — new developments crushing older ways of doing things, being adopted despite manifest risks. Newspapers, which the book discusses at length as under attack by new offerings like Craigslist and Digg, were themselves, at one time, new developments that put paid to existing businesses. William Randolph Hearst rode newspaper sensationalism to media power, in the process creating a powerful conglomerate that ultimately discarded his sensationalism in favor of the even more economically attractive “objective” journalism (which, by the way, many people dislike, mourning the superseded rabid political journalism of Hearst, feeling that objective journalism ignores important perspectives in an effort to present a “balanced” perspective).

Another historical figure, Henry Ford, invented mass production to transform our economy and, incidentally, make it possible for us to kill about 40,000 people a year in the US — talk about a risk factor!

One is left with the suspicion that the choice of historical examples is somewhat facile, and that another set could easily have been chosen that would make a counter-argument, and perhaps more powerfully.

I have no doubt that there is (and will be) tremendous economic dislocation as a result of the development of information technology. But there has never been a point in time that one could pick out and say “it’s perfect — any change could only worsen the situation.” Most people embrace the freedom of the automobile, despite its very evident drawbacks. I expect most will find the benefits of increasing IT capability to be, on the whole, a tremendous benefit. More to the point, I don’t expect the centralization of IT described in “The Big Switch” to be anywhere near the final evolution of IT; the power of Moore’s Law is so enormous that “The Big Switch” will be surpassed by something else in the relatively new future.