The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google
An eye-opening look at the new computer revolution and the coming transformation of our economy, society, and culture.
A hundred years ago, companies stopped producing their own power with steam engines and generators and plugged into the newly built electric grid. The cheap power pumped out by electric utilities not only changed how businesses operated but also brought the modern world into existence. Today a similar revolution is under way. Companies are dismantling their private computer systems and tapping into rich services delivered over the Internet. This time it's computing that's turning into a utility. The shift is already remaking the computer industry, bringing new competitors like Google to the fore and threatening traditional stalwarts like Microsoft and Dell. But the effects will reach much further. Cheap computing will ultimately change society as profoundly as cheap electricity did. In this lucid and compelling book, Nicholas Carr weaves together history, economics, and technology to explain why computing is changing -- and what it means for all of us.
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Nicholas Carr does a good job. Visit his website its worth it.
Part One of The Big Switch is primarily concerned with this progression of computing and IT from specialized service to mainstream utility, and I believe that most readers will find it as engrossing and enlightened as I did. But the tone and focus of Carr's book change dramatically as Part Two opens. Whereas Carr keeps Part One fairly value- or viewpoint-neutral, Part Two is a more spirited critique of the economic and cultural consequences of "The Big Switch."
In Part Two, he launches into his attack of the "techno-utopianism" that sometimes accompanies discussions about the implications of the Information Age and life in the cloud. "[O]ptimism is a natural response to the arrival of a powerful and mysterious new technology," but, Carr warns, "it can blind us to more troubling portents." And "there is reason to believe that our cybernetic meadow may be something less than a new Eden."
It is here that Carr's critique becomes familiar to those of us who follow the modern Internet policy debates. Carr is essentially joining the ranks of other Net skeptics like Andrew Keen, Lee Siegel, and others. This line of social criticism, or neo-Ludditism, can be traced back to the late Neil Postman, author of the 1992 anti-technology manifesto, "Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology."
Ultimately, however, I found Carr's case unconvincing. When it comes to the true impact of the Internet on our economy and culture, the truth is somewhere in between the two extremes staked out by Net optimists and pessimists. "Pragmatic optimism" might be the better approach: One can appreciate how much better off the Internet has made society while also recognizing that it has created new challenges that we need to think through.
Finally, I believe Carr makes a similar mistake when he argues that computers and the Internet are really more "technologies of control" than "technologies of emancipation." Carr adopts the same pessimistic tone set forth by Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu in their book "Who Controls the Internet," arguing that governments can and will bend digital communications tool and networks to serve their own ends. While I agree that computers and the Net give the big bad statist bureaucrats new tools of control, I persist in my belief that these digital tools offer the masses more methods of evading and minimizing the power of government over their lives and liberties. I think it is important to put things in some historical context. In the past, governments could completely control the media and disseminate incessant propaganda. It is far more difficult for them to get away with that today, and citizens have many tools and outlets at their disposal to respond. Digital technologies really are technologies of emancipation, but we can't expect them to break the backs of the statist thugs overnight.
[My complete review of Carr's book can be found on the Technology Liberation Front: http://techliberation.com/2008/10/30/book-review-nick-carrs-big-switch ]
A Doorway in Boston
The Inventor and His Clerk
Goodbye Mr Gates
The White City
Living in the Cloud
The Great Unbundling
Fighting the Net
A Spiders Web
Flame and Filament
World Wide Computer
From the Many to the Few