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The Big Switch in Many Ways
on December 29, 2007
Nicholas Carr's latest book The Big Switch is not the book that many would expect, in fact its better. Carr, who made his fame by making the assertion that IT doesn't Matter and then asking the question Does IT matter? deals with this subject for about 10% of the book. The remainder concentrates on Carr's looking forward to business, society, politics and the world we are creating. It's a welcome switch as it enables Carr to discuss broader issues rather than hammering on a narrow point.
The net score of three stars is based on the following logic. This book gets four stars as it's is a good anthological review of broader issues that have been in the marketplace for some time. It loses one star because that is all it is, a discussion, without analysis, ideas, alternatives or business applications the book discusses rather than raises issues for the future.
Ostensibly the big switch is between today's corporate computing which has islands of individual automation to what Carr calls the world wide computer - basically the programmable internet. Carr's attempt to coin a new phrase - world wide computer, is one of the things that does not work in this book. It feels contrived and while the internet is undergoing fundamental change, the attempt at rebranding is an unnecessary distraction.
Overall, this is a good book and should be considered as part of the overall future of economics and business genre rather than a discussion of IT or technology. Carr is an editor at heart and that shows through in this book. 80% of the book is reviews and discussions of the works of other people. I counted at least 30 other books and authors that I have read and Carr uses to support his basic argument.
The book's primary weakness is in its lack of attention to business issues, strategies and business recommendations. As an editor, it's understandable that Carr would not know first hand how to run a company. But I would have expected a more balanced analysis of the issues. Carr almost exclusively talks with companies that are vendors of this new solution - the supply side. He is a booster for Google - not a bad thing in itself - but something that leaves the book unbalanced. Without case examples, a discussion of business decisions, and alternatives - the book is too general to be something to organize my company's future around.
As an anthology about technology's influence on the future it's pretty good. The book does not deliver on groundbreaking new ideas that will drive strategy - particularly not for people who have followed the development of the internet. If you have read Gilder, Negroponte, Davenport and Harris, Peters, Lewis, Tapscott, among others, then you will recognize many of the ideas in this book.
Carr's book is in fact a prime example of the future world he describes where individuals garner attention, form a social group and then extract value from that group. Carr garnered attention with IT Doesn't Matter, used that to polarize the business community into IT supporters and detractors - creating even more attention, and finally extracting value from the group in the form of speaking engagements and this book. So Carr has made the big switch and it is from traditional media to a new attention driven economy. (Read Davenport and Beck's book Attention Economy if you want to understand more)
Chapter by Chapter Review
The book is divided in to two parts. The first uses historical analysis to build the ideas that the Internet is following the same developmental path as electric power did 100 years ago. This idea is one of Carr's obsessions and featured throughout his writing. The second section discusses the economic, social and other issues associated with the Internet becoming the platform and marketplace for commerce.
Chapter 1: Burden's Wheel lays out Carr's overall argument from an academic perspective. It starts with the historical position of water power, the precursor to electricity, and then explains conceptually what these different technologies mean. This is a clear statement and one that is important to the book. Carr points out the unique economic impact of general purpose technologies - the few technologies that are the basis for a multitude of other economic activity.
Chapter 2: The Inventor and His Clear is a historical account of the early days of electricity. Well researched, this chapter is good reading for the business history buff than one looking to understand the arguments Carr is making. The chapter focuses largely on the development and adoption of electric power. It points out that electric power had some false starts such as Edison's instance on local DC plants and that it needed the development of some additional technologies to take off. As an analogy to computing and the internet, these examples fit very neatly - almost too neatly into Carr's argument.
Chapter 3: Digital Millwork discusses the recent history of the computer. This is intended to give the reader the opportunity to connect the history of the electricity at the turn of the 20th century with the development of computing at the turn of the 21st century. It works to a point. Straight comparisons between client service computing and DC power generation among others are partially accurate, but incomplete. Carr sees bandwidth as the savior of computing much in the same way that the dynamo and Tesla's AC power turned electric plants into regional power companies.
This chapter communicates Carr's basic complaint with current information technology - at least in this book. His complain on page 56 and 57 is that IT costs too much for what it delivers. Latter he talks about excess capacity in servers and computing capacity. This basic cost economics argument does not take into account the value generated by the existence of the applications that run on those servers and the fact that at the time business leaders, like their grand fathers before them did not have another choice.
Chapter 4: Goodbye, Mr. Gates holds his explanation of the future world - a future of virtual computing where physical location and therefore device based software licensing no longer exists. In the chapter, Mr. Carr is late to the game. Grid computing has been a developing factor for more than 10 years and will accelerate as this book popularizes the idea. The comments in this chapter are not particularly new for the technology aware but they are almost unabashedly positive in favor of Google, something that will continue for the rest of the book
Chapter 5: The White City turns away from a continued development of the technical ideas of virtualization and grid computing and moves back into a historical discussion of how electricity changed people's lives and societies. Again Carr is providing information to set the reader up to make a comparison to what the switch to the Internet might be. His discussion of Insull and Ford are interesting if brief.
Part Two of the book takes a curious turn ad Carr finishes his arguments about the programmable internet and then seeks to systematically undermine the value of that environment on which he says the future is based. He offers few ideas or solutions, just criticism or more appropriately the criticism of others.
Chapter 6 World Wide Computer returns to the notion of what the unbridled possibilities of the programmable internet might be. This chapter concentrates on how wonderful this world will be for the individual with infinite information and computing power available to them. Carr provides a clear example of a Ford Mustang enthusiast's ability to create their own multi-media blog/website/advertising site as an example of how wonderful the world will be. This chapter is the utopian chapter where we all can benefit; Carr will destroy most of those notions in latter chapters.
Here is where Carr discusses the future of corporate computing; giving the topic all of four paragraphs p. 117-118. The basic idea is that today's IT will fade away in the face of `business units and individuals who will be able to control the processing of information directly." For IT people, this is the end user computing argument. This is also the last word he makes on the subject of IT in the book.
Chapter 7: From Many to the Few is a discussion of the social impacts of a programmable internet where each runs their own personal business. Think Tom Peters and personal brand. This is the best chapter of the book and the most unusual Carr sets out to systematically point out the negative consequences of the assertions he makes in the previous chapters. Here he talks about the fact that fewer and fewer people will need to work in a global world of the programmable internet, that the utopia of equality and cottage industries envisioned by the web will not come to pass.
Chapter 8: The Great Unbundling talks about the move from mass markets to markets of one. The chapter also talks about the social implications of a web that connects like people creating a tribal and increasingly multi-polar world, rather than the world wide consciousness assumed to arise when education and communications levels increase.
Chapter 9 Fighting the Net discusses the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of free flowing information and the structural integrity of the net. This chapter again tears away at the foundation of the future that Carr lays out earlier. Normally in a book there would be public policy recommendations to address these points. They are not here giving this chapter more the feeling of journalism rather than analysis and insight.
Chapter 10 A Spider's Web addresses the personal privacy issues associated with the web and the realization that as Richard Hunter says "we live in a world without secrets". This chapter is a warning about the issues of privacy and what it means to do business where everything is recorded and tracked.
Chapter 11 iGod is the far out chapter talking about the fusion of human and machine consciousness. What is possible when the human brain can immediately access infinite information and the machine gains artificial intelligence? These are the questions raised but unaddressed in this chapter. In possibly setting up his next book, Carr provides a journalistic survey of the work that is being driven to bring man and machine together.