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The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google Paperback – January 19, 2009

4.0 out of 5 stars 113 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

While it may seem that we're in the midst of an unprecedented technological transition, Carr (Does IT Matter?) posits that the direction of the digital revolution has a strong historical corollary: electrification. Carr argues that computing, no longer personal, is going the way of a power utility. Manufacturers used to provide their own power (i.e., windmills and waterwheels) until they plugged into the electric grid a hundred years ago. According to Carr, we're in the midst of a similar transition in computing, moving from our own private hard drives to the computer as access portal. Soon all companies and individuals will outsource their computing systems, from programming to data storage, to companies with big hard drives in out-of-the-way places. Carr's analysis of the recent past is clear and insightful as he examines common computing tools that are embedded in the Internet instead of stored on a hard drive, including Google and YouTube. The social and economic consequences of this transition into the utility age fall somewhere between uncertain and grim, Carr argues. Wealth will be further consolidated into the hands of a few, and specific industries, publishing in particular, will perish at the hands of crowdsourcing and the unbundling of content. However, Carr eschews an entirely dystopian vision for the future, hypothesizing without prognosticating. Perhaps lucky for us, he leaves a great number of questions unanswered. (Jan.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Review

“Mr. Carr's provocations are destined to influence CEOs and the boards and investors that support them as companies grapple with the constant change of the digital age.” (The Wall Street Journal)

“Persuasive, well-researched, authoritative and convincing....He's reasonable in his conclusions and moderate in his extrapolations. This is an exceedingly good book.” (Techworld)

“Magisterial ... Draws an elegant and illuminating parallel between the late-19th-century electrification of America and today's computing world.” (Salon)

“Quick, clear read on an important theme ... Scary? No doubt. But as we prepare for the World Wide Computer, it's not a bad idea to consider its dark side.” (Business Week)

“[W]idely considered to be the most influential book so far on the cloud computing movement.” (Christian Science Monitor)

“The first serious examination of 'Web 2.0' in book form.” (The Register)

The Big Switch is thought-provoking and an enjoyable read, and the history of American electricity that makes up the first half of the book is riveting stuff. Further, the book broadly reinforces the point that it's always wise to distrust utopias, technological or otherwise.” (The New York Post)

“Carr may take a somewhat apocalyptic view of the vast technological and social issues which a move to utility computing will raise, not least those of privacy, ownership and access, but he makes a compelling case for its desirability in a world where the network is pervasive. Whether we go gently into this world is, of course, up to us, but with the insight offered here we will at least be prepared to understand the consequences of our choices earlier in the process rather than later.” (New Humanist)

“Lucid and accessible ... [Carr's] account is one of high journalism, rather than of a social or computer scientist. His book should be read by anyone interested in the shift from the world wide web and its implications for industry, work and our information environment.” (Times Higher Education Supplement)

“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 ... 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?” (San Francisco Chronicle)

“Mr. Carr is always interesting.” (Washington Times)

“Carr is one of the more cogent writers on the economic and social implications of the changes sweeping through corporate data centres.” (Financial Times)

“'Information is born free, but everywhere is found in chains.' So Nicholas Carr―in his latest and characteristically stimulating challenge to conventional thinking about technology―might have paraphrased Rousseau.” (Democracy)

“Nick Carr has written a meditation on the loss of the old when confronted by the new, the loss of the incumbents' advantage when history shifts under them, the loss of data control to third parties, and the loss of sovereignty to institutions and other actors we can't control.” (Public CIO)

The Big Switch ... will almost certainly influence a large audience. Carr persuasively argues that we're moving from the era of the personal computer to an age of utility computing - by which he means the expansion of grid computing, the distribution of computing and storage over the Internet, until it accounts for the bulk of what the human race does digitally. And he nicely marshals his historical analogies, detailing how electricity delivered over a grid supplanted the various power sources used during most of the 19th century ... I also suspect he's right to suggest that in a decade or so, many things we now believe permanent will have disappeared.” (Technology Review)

“Considered and erudite.” (The Telegraph)

“Carr stimulates, provokes and entertains superbly.” (Information Age)

“Starred Review. Carr created a huge rift in the business community with his first book, Does IT Matter?, challenging the conventional wisdom that information technology provides a competitive advantage. Here he examines the future of the Internet, which he says may one day completely replace the desktop PC as all computing services are delivered over the Net as a utility, the Internet morphing into one giant 'World Wide Computer.' ... Carr warns that the downside of the World Wide Computer may mean further concentration of wealth for the few, and the loss of jobs, privacy, and the depth of our culture.” (Booklist)

“Carr’s analysis of the recent past is clear and insightful as he examines common computing tools that are embedded in the Internet instead of stored on a hard drive, including Google and YouTube.” (Publishers Weekly)

“A leading technological rabble-rouser prognosticates a world beyond Web 2.0. [Carr's] broader sociological observations are punctuated by a pair of ominously prescient chapters about privacy issues and cyberterrorism.” (Kirkus Reviews)

“An enjoyable and thought-provoking read.” (GigaOm)

The Big Switch explains the future of computing in terms so simple I can understand them.” (Ed Cone - Greensboro News-Record)

“[#4 on Newsweek's "Fifty Books For Our Times":] You've heard of 'cloud computing,' but let's be honest, you really don't know what it means. Or why it's going to change everything.” (Newsweek)
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition (January 19, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393333949
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393333947
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (113 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,087,371 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Mark P. McDonald VINE VOICE on December 29, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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.
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Format: Hardcover
Save your money. This book contains nothing but an extended defense of a Utopian vision of the IT future first published in Carr's HBR article. Limited understanding of underlying IT technologies, haziness and lack of concrete detailed examples (obscurantism) are typical marks of Carr's style. Carr used focus on IT shortcomings as a smokescreen to propose a new utopia: users are mastering complex IT packages and perform all functions previously provided by IT staff, while "in the cloud" software service providers fill the rest. This is pretty fine humor, the caricature reminding me mainframe model, but not much more.

His analogies are extremely superficial and are completely unconvincing (Google actually can greatly benefit from owning an electrical generation plant or two :-) Complexity of IT systems has no precedents in human history. That means that analogies with railways and electrical grid are deeply and irrevocably flawed. They do not capture the key characteristics of the IT technology: its unsurpassed complexity and Lego type flexibility. IT became a real nerve system of the modern organizations. Not the muscle system or legs :-)

Carr's approach to IT is completely anti-historic. Promoting his "everything in the cloud" Utopia as the most important transformation of IT ever, he forgot (or simply does not know) that IT already experienced several dramatic transformations due to new technologies which emerged in 60th, 70th and 90th. Each of those transformations was more dramatic and important then neo-mainframe revolution which he tried to sell as "bright future of IT" and a panacea from all IT ills. For example, first mainframes replaced "prehistoric" computers.
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This is a very worthwhile easy to absorb book. The author is thoughtful, well-spoken, with good notes and currency as of 2007.

The one major flaw in the book is the uncritical comparison of cloud computing with electricity as a utility. That analogy fails when one recognizes that the current electrical system wastes 50% of the power going down-stream, and has become so unreliable that NSA among others is building its own private electrical power plant--with a nuclear core, one wonders? While the author is fully aware of the dangers to privacy and liberty, and below I recap a few of his excellent points, he disappoints in not recognizing that localized resilience and human scale are the core of humanity and community, and that what we really need right now, which John Chambers strangely does not appear willing to offer, is a solar-powered server-router that gives every individual Application Oriented Network control at the point of creation (along with anonymous banking and Grug distributed search), while also creating local pods that can operate independently of the cloud while also blocking Google perverted new programmable search, wherer what you see is not what's in your best interests, but rather what the highest bidder paid to force into your view.

The author cites one source as saying that Google computation can do a task at one tenth of the cost. To learn more, find my review, "Google 2.0: The Calculating Predator" and follow the bread crumbs.

The author touches on software as a service, and I am reminded of the IBM interst in "Services Science.
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