The Big Switch
Rewiring the World, From Edison to Google
By Nicholas Carr
NORTON; 278 PAGES; $25.95As Nicholas Carr tells the story, when he first published his Harvard Business Review article "IT Doesn't Matter" in May 2003, it launched an epidemic of bluster and posturing among the captains of information technology. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer called it "hogwash"; soon-to-be-ousted Hewlett-Packard honchette Carly Fiorina asserted that Carr was "dead wrong," and Intel CEO Craig Barrett announced to a tech-conference audience: "IT matters a whole lot!"
In "The Big Switch," Carr, former executive editor of the Harvard Business Review and a frequent contributor to leading business publications, builds persuasively on that article's thesis. In the process he makes it quite clear that it's not just technology companies - those whose very existence depends on selling gazillions of dollars' worth of hardware, software and consulting services to the world's businesses - who need to worry.
Carr's core insight, which he develops in the first half of the book, is that the development of the computer and the Internet remarkably parallels that of the last radically disruptive technology, electricity. He traces the rapid morphing of electrification from an in-house competitive advantage to a ubiquitous utility, and how the business advantage rapidly shifted from the innovators and early adopters to corporate titans who made their fortune from controlling a commodity essential to everyday life.
Just so, he writes, the personal computer, the Internet and the World Wide Web may be largely the creation of visionaries and tech wizards and offered short-term advantages to early adopters, but we're already seeing the migration of those resources to a centralized utility in which it makes ever less sense for businesses or individuals to own their own technology; the value lies in the ability to connect to the system. As former Sun chairman Scott McNealy used to say back in the '80s, "The network is the computer."
Of course, some years later, McNealy also said, "You have zero privacy. Get over it" - an increasingly indisputable fact (which Carr examines in alarming detail) that can be laid squarely at the door of the techno-titans.
Carr devotes the second half of his book to the study of unintended (at least by the innovators and cheerleaders) consequences of the 20th century's technological breakthroughs and likely parallels in the 21st's. While ubiquitous electricity created widespread benefits, it hardly delivered the drudgery-free paradise its more over-the-top enthusiasts predicted - although, as the apotheosis of the Industrial Revolution, it did throw hordes of skilled and unskilled laborers out of work, amid plenty of other repercussions.
The advent of electric household appliances, for example, may have reduced the need for domestic servants, but it created corresponding pressure on the individual homemaker to maintain an impossible (and marketing-driven) standard of sparkling perfection - Carr notes, for example, that the electric iron made it socially unacceptable for even children to go about in wrinkled clothing. The net result was a world in which women were increasingly confined to their homes and deprived of adult conversation, just because running the home "efficiently" had become a full-time job: "The housewife, like the factory hand, had become an essential cog in the great technological machine that was producing a more advanced civilization."
Looking for similar dystopian developments in the present day, Carr finds many - driven, as with electricity, by the dual forces of profit and control. He points, for example, to the rapid erosion of his own field, journalism, by "user-generated content" and the increased unwillingness of the population to pay for content, be it music, video or investigative reporting - which, when combined with the growing ability of advertisers to quantify results and reluctance to pay for anything that doesn't help their bottom line, is fast rendering anything but product-pushing economically unsustainable. Similar disruptions are occurring across the board in occupations that have largely sustained the middle class, as knowledge and expertise are offloaded from the individual brain to the centralized machine - with dire social and economic consequences but great power and revenues for those who control the machine.
While technological innovation is largely the creation of idealistic geniuses spurred on by utopian visions, Carr points out, it is rapidly co-opted by the incumbent in power and turned to other purposes. (Case in point, Napster and the Recording Industry Association of America.) Technology may be the ultimate tool or even the ultimate psychedelic, but do we really want to become utterly dependent on something about which we have essentially no say? And as for those utopian visions, do we really share them?
Carr quotes former Wired editor and perennial hive-mind enthusiast Kevin Kelly, who proclaims: "The more we teach this megacomputer, the more it will assume responsibility for our knowing. It will become our memory. Then it will become our identity. In 2015 many people, when divorced from the Machine, won't feel like themselves - as if they'd had a lobotomy."
Or, as a zealot of another stripe put it: "[As] machines become more and more intelligent, people will let machines make more of their decisions for them, simply because machine-made decisions will bring better results than man-made ones. Eventually a stage may be reached at which the decisions necessary to keep the system running will be so complex that human beings will be incapable of making them intelligently. At that stage the machines will be in effective control. People won't be able to just turn the machines off, because they will be so dependent on them that turning them off would amount to suicide."
That quote, Carr points out, comes from Ted Kaczynski's Unabomber Manifesto. "What was for Kaczynski a paranoia-making nightmare is for Kelly a vision of utopia," he writes - and it's a fact that should give us all pause as we rush headlong into the connected future.
Mary Eisenhart, an Oakland writer and editor, was for 14 years the editor of MicroTimes: California's Computer Magazine.
This article appeared on page M - 3 of the San Francisco Chronicle