Book Review: Nick Carr’s Big Switch

by on October 30, 2008 · 634 comments

Carr Big Switch book coverI just finished reading through The Economist’s new 14-page special report on cloud computing, “Let It Rise” in which Ludwig Siegele provides an outstanding overview of cloud computing and why it is so important:

The rise of the cloud is more than just another platform shift that gets geeks excited. It will undoubtedly transform the information technology (IT) industry, but it will also profoundly change the way people work and companies operate. It will allow digital technology to penetrate every nook and cranny of the economy and of society, creating some tricky political problems along the way.

Even if you are very familiar with cloud computing, I recommend you take a look at the article. Anyway, while I was reading it, I was unsurprised to come across some comments from Nicholas Carr, whose new book The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google, is essentially an early history of cloud computing and an investigation into its effects on our economy, culture, and society. And that also reminded me that, even though I have mentioned Carr’s book here several times since it was released earlier this year, I have failed to give it a dedicated review. And it certain deserves one because “The Big Switch” is easily one of the most important technology policy books of 2008.

One of the reasons Carr’s book will be high up on my end of the year list of best tech books has nothing to do with substance. It’s his style. Carr is one of most gifted writers in the tech policy field today. His eloquence and brilliant story-telling skills remind me of George Gilder in his prime. Carr nicely places modern developments in a historical context and relates the changes we are witnessing today to previous technological innovations and eras.

At the same time, however, Carr has also become one of the America’s leading Internet skeptics and vocal critics of techno-utopianism, as I noted in an essay a few months ago about Internet optimists and pessimists. He is, by far, the most reasonable and respected of those Net skeptics, using a measured tone when attacking those who have adopted a more pollyanna-ish, rose-colored view of the world. [For similar reasons, Carr's "Rough Type" blog is must-reading for anyone who monitors technology policy.]

Electric Parallels

But on to the substance of the book. Carr’s thesis is that we are in the midst of “another epochal [technological] transformation” that parallels what happened with the “democratization of electricity” a century ago:

What happened to the generation of power a century ago is now happening to the processing of information. Private computer systems, built and operated by individual companies, are being supplanted by services provided by a common grid — the Internet — by centralized data-processing plants. Computing is turning into a utility, and once again the economic equations that determine the way we work and live are being rewritten. (p. 12)

“That shift,” Carr continues, “promises not only to change the nature of corporate IT departments but to shake up the entire computer industry.” (p. 13) Indeed, the “revolutionary potential of the information utility” promises to have profound implications:

In the years ahead, more and more of the information processing tasks that we rely on, at home and at work, will be handled by big data centers located out on the Internet. The nature and economics of computing will change as dramatically as the nature and economics of mechanical power changed in the early years of the last century. The consequences for society — for the way we live, work, learn, communicate, entertain ourselves, and even think — promise to be equally profound. (p. 21)

Unsurprisingly, Google is the central player in Carr’s drama because it is “a giant information utility” (p. 13) that has capitalized on the movement of so much knowledge and technology into the cloud and off of our desktops. Carr argues that “once utility services mature, the idea of getting rid of your PC will become much more attractive” (p. 80) and “We may find, twenty or so years from now, that the personal computer has become a museum piece, a reminder of a curious time when all of us where forced to be amateur computer technicians.” (p. 81)

Carr’s Critique of “Techno-Utopianism”

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.” (p. 125)

It is here that Carr’s critique becomes familiar to those of us who follow the modern Internet policy debates. As I noted in my “Internet Optimists and Pessimists” essay, Carr is joining the ranks of other Net skeptics like Andrew Keen, Lee Siegel, and others. In my recent review of Lee Siegel’s Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob, I traced this strand of social criticism back to the late Neil Postman, author of the 1992 anti-technology manifesto, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology.

Carr’s concerns about the consequences of cloud computing and the rise of “techno-utopianism” parallel those found in those other “pessimistic” tracts, although Carr is far more level-headed in articulating those fears. As I noted in the Siegel review, those concerns can generally be grouped as follows:

  1. The Net is destroying (or at least greatly diminishing) the role of experts, authority, “truth”, and traditional societal norms and institutions. This is having (or eventually will result in) dangerous ramifications for our culture, economy, and democracy.
  2. The personalization and customization that the Information Age and the Internet have spawned could have troubling ramifications for our society and culture.

Dangers of Disintermediation and the Problem with “Free”

Regarding the first of these concerns, Carr argues that “while it’s true that the reduction in production and distribution costs is bringing us many more options, it would be a mistake to leap to the conclusion that nothing will be sacrificed in the process. More choices don’t necessarily mean better choices,” he says. (p. 151) He continues:

Many cultural goods remain expensive to create or require the painstaking work of talented professionals, and it’s worth considering how the changing economics of media will affect them. Will these goods be able to find a large enough paying audience to underwrite their existence, or will they end up being crowded out of the marketplace by the proliferation of free, or easily accessible products? Even though the Internet can in theory accommodate a nearly infinite variety of information goods, that doesn’t mean that the market will be able to support all of them. Some of the most cherished creative works may not survive the transition to the Web’s teeming bazaar. (p. 151)

More specifically, Carr is worried about what “The Great Unbundling” — i.e., the radically disruptive disintermediation associated with the Internet Age — will mean for the future of “hard news,” investigative journalism, and prized forms of culture. The cross-subsidies that have supported the creation of such content are at risk, Carr fears, as the Net’s relentless drive for increased efficiency rolls like a digital wrecking ball through the old media and cultural landscape. “[T]he largest threat posed by social production won’t be to big corporations but to individual professionals — to the journalists, editors, photographers, researchers, analysts, librarians, and other information workers who can be replaced,” Carr says, by “crowdsourcing.” (p. 142)

In this way, Carr’s concerns are quite similar to those raised by Andrew Keen and others about how the Internet is potentially “killing our culture” (or at least the best of it as they would define it). But Carr extends this social critique in an important way by claiming that the problem with the emerging model of social production and “free” business models that dominate the online marketplace today is that they are built on a “sharecropper model.” The Net’s dominant giants, he argues, are reaping their riches on the back of free labor. These new sites and services “are essentially agglomerations of the creative, unpaid contributions of their members. In a twist on the old agricultural practice of sharecropping, the site owners provide the digital real estate and tools, let the members do all the work, and then harvest the economic riches.” (p. 137-8)

I have some sympathy for these arguments, especially as they have been articulated by Carr here in The Big Switch. Compared to the way other critics like Keen and Siegel have used over-the-top apocalyptic, neo-Luddite rhetoric when discussing their related concerns, Carr generally avoids such hysteria and does a better job of laying out his concerns about the Net and cloud computing in a more reasonable fashion. And there is little doubt that the Internet and social production models are placing enormous strain on many traditional professions and professionals.

I have problems with his “sharecropper” argument, however. This logic ignores the non-monetary benefits that many of us feel we extract from today’s online business models and social production processes. Most of us feel we get a lot back as part of this new value exchange. Carr is certainly correct that Google, Facebook, MySpace, and a lot of other Net middlemen are getting big and rich based on all the user-generated content flowing over their sites and systems. On the other hand, most cyber-citizens extract enormous benefits from the existence of those (mostly free and constantly improving) platforms and services. It’s a very different sort of value exchange and business model than most of us have been accustomed to in the past, but we are adjusting to it. We humans are resilient, adaptable creatures and we can usually learn to cope with such changes and find a way to use them to our advantage. It’s not all about companies getting rich; we are getting richer too, but in a different way. We have an abundance of information, culture, and communications opportunities at our disposal today that were simply unthinkable even a generation ago.

Carr and other Net skeptics certainly raise some very legitimate questions about the limitations of the “free culture” mindset, however. There are times when the net optimists really do sound like the pollyannish “utopians” that Carr claims they are. When I am reading the work of Benkler and other optimists, it sometimes comes across as techno-Rousseauian gibberish (or what Carr labels “the Internet’s liberation mythology.”) The Internet isn’t remaking man or changing human nature in any fundamental way, which is what some optimists seem to imply. Moreover, when it comes to economics, all this talk about the Long Tail being “the future of business” (Chris Anderson) and of “Wikinomics… changing everything through mass collaboration,” (Don Tapscott & Anthony Williams) goes much too far in my opinion. It’s irrational (techno-) exuberance.

On the other hand, Carr and the other pessimists occasionally go to the opposite extreme in critiquing new models of social production, open source, and other collaborative creative endeavors. Their obsession with Wikipedia is particularly curious. If one views Wikipedia and Wiki- models as supplements or compliments to traditional media and communications models and activities, then where is the harm? Most of us understand they are not perfect, but we can appreciate the benefits they bring society despite their limitations.

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 optimists and pessimists. My own position in this regard might best be labeled “pragmatic optimism”: 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.

Downsides of Hyper-Personalization

The other important theme developed by Carr in the second half of The Big Switch, which also runs throughout the work of other techno-pessimist tracts, is that the increased personalization and customization facilitated by the Internet is breeding dangerous anti-social attitudes and tendencies. Building on an argument first put forth by Cass Sunstein in his 2001 book Republic.com, Carr worries about the impact of the “Daily Me.” The “Daily Me” was the term Nicholas Negroponte coined in his prescient 1995 book Being Digital, to describe the new digital world he hoped would develop, filled with hyper-personalized, instantaneously-delivered content. And that’s largely the Web 2.0 world we live in today.

But Carr, Sunstein, and many other Net skeptics, refer to Negroponte’s “Daily Me” in contemptuous terms, arguing that the hyper-customization of websites and online technologies is causing extreme social “fragmentation,” “polarization,” “balkanization,” and “single-mindedness.” Carr warns:

Every time we subscribe to a blog, add a friend to our social network, categorize an email message as spam, or even choose a site from a list of search results, we are making a decision that defines, in some small way, whom we associate with and what information we pay attention to. (p. 160)

Thus, he fears, we could be “click[ing] our way to a fractured society” (p. 160) because of the “ideological amplification” (p. 164) bred by the Daily Me. There’s even the risk of increased fanaticism, radicalization, and extremism, he warns.

I have addressed this argument at length in my 2005 book, Media Myths (p. 39) but, to summarize, the fundamental problem with this logic is that it ignores the fact that, thanks to the rise of the Net, most of us are experiencing far more diverse voices and viewpoints than we ever did in the past. Sure, it is true that we also can now find our little niche groups and bunk-up with them online for extended periods, but I find it absurd to claim that we humans are less exposed to diverse viewpoints today than in the past.

Regardless, even if Carr and the other Net skeptics are correct and the Net is breeding such isolation and balkanization, what are we suppose to do about it? Should we roll back the clock to the good ol’ days? Carr doesn’t give us a straight answer. But, again, there are good reasons to question whether society was really better off in the pre-Internet days. The Analog / Scarcity Era had it’s own share of problems, beginning with the fact that it was extremely difficult for niche interests in our society to be served when media was catering to a mass audience through newspapers and broadcast stations. Certainly, the old model of media delivery had its advantages, but the drawbacks were enormous, and not just as it pertained to entertainment. Consider news: If we all weren’t home sitting in front of our TV sets at exactly 6:30 each night, then we missed our chance to hear the same three old white guys in bad suits tells us what the important news of the day was. Look, I liked Cronkite, Brinkley & Co., but I will take today’s 24/7 news cycle of instantaneous news over that old system any day of the week.

Again, there are trade-offs at work here. Things are not all roses like Net optimists would claim. The downside of an endless news cycle is that people can just find a niche news channel or program that feeds them news more closely in line with their own ideological tendencies. Moreover, there very well may be — to use Glenn Reynolds’s phrase — “An Army of Davids” out there in the blogosphere today taking on traditional media and expressing themselves however they wish, but that doesn’t automatically mean they all have something interesting to say! Even when they do, there is still a useful role played by mass media providers or “professional” media in steering news and culture. Indeed, they provide an essential editing function in terms of helping us decide what types of news or culture may be more important. I personally rely on the Wall Street Journal to help guide my investigation of what financial market news is worth exploring each week. I wouldn’t want to just set up my Google Alerts to feed me “financial news” and then trust that everything that came into my RSS reader was worth reading. In this sense, the WSJ is what I call a “trusted information intermediary” (or “old school filter” if you will) that many of us could not live without.

But that traditional intermediary editing and filtering function, which used to be total in its applicability to news and culture, is now shrinking rapdily. “Mass media” just isn’t quite as MASS-ive as it once was, and the rise of personalized “Daily Me” media and culture certainly has had something to do with that since it has allow us to filter news and culture ourselves.  But why can’t we have the best of both worlds — some old school filtering by trusted information intermediaries along with plenty of personalized filtering? In many ways, I think we have that balance today — and it is a wonderful thing. Pessimists like Carr seem to only focus on the downsides of customized media, and that’s unfortunate. Nonetheless, they are right to ask the tough questions about how long those old school filters (traditional media intermediaries) will survive if all of us flock to an extreme “Daily Me” mindset. My contention, however, is that we won’t. Most of us appreciate the balanced approach and are willing to support some — but not all — of those old intermediaries and filters.

I have far less sympathy for Carr’s argument that increased specialization and customization are breeding “fanaticism” and “radicalization.” Last time I checked, mobs weren’t rioting in the streets or rushing out to join the Nazi or Communist parties! Those knuckleheads still exist, of course, but they have always existed. And let’s not forget, it was during the age of scarcity and mass media that those movements gained traction and took control in some countries. In the Internet Age, by contrast, such extremist loonies usually get exposed and widely ridiculed. As the old saying goes, the answer to bad speech is more speech. The Internet has given it to us and helped us counter such societal extremism, even if it has simultaneously given such extremists a new soapbox to stand on and spew their hatred and stupidity. Let them spew it and we will respond! And we will marginalize them in the process. There’s just no chance some sort of mini-Hitler is going to use the Net to revive fascism and build a mass audience today.

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.” (p. 191)  “While the Net offers people a new medium for discovering information and voicing opinions, it also provides bureaucrats with a powerful new tool for monitoring speech, identifying dissidents, and disseminating propaganda.” (p. 200)  In this sense, Carr is adopting the same pessimistic tone set forth by Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu in their book Who Controls the Internet? 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.  Again, 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.

Conclusion

Carr’s pessimism on the two issues discussed above is succinctly captured on pg. 167 of his book when he argues that:

it’s clear that two of the hopes most dear to the Internet optimists — that the Web will create a more bountiful culture and that it will promote greater harmony and understanding — should be treated with skepticism. Cultural impoverishment and social fragmentation seem equally likely outcomes.

That almost perfectly delineates the battle lines in the great debate taking place today between Internet optimists and pessimists. The Big Switch probably makes the best case for the pessimists that has been penned thus far, and for that reason alone it deserves your attention. However, I continue to remain cautiously optimistic that the Net is moving our economy, culture, and society in a better direction — at least compared to a past, which had its own share of drawbacks and problems.

________

P.S. If you are interested in the ongoing debate about cloud computing — and specifically the question of how much competition we can expect going forward — you’ll definitely want to check out this very interesting discussion taking place between Hugh Macleod, Tim O’Reilly, and Nick Carr.

Also, here’s a video of Nick Carr’s recent appearance on “The Colbert Report”:

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