Nick Carr’s The Big Switch

Not long ago Nicholas Carr posted a note on his weblog: the first 150 webloggers who left a note would receive an advance copy of his new book, The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, From Edison to Google. I received mine last week, and just finished reading it today.

If you expect to pick up a book like The Big Switch, and feel fired up and inspired, think again. The same goes if you expect to come away feeling pessimistic or gloomy about our prospects for the future. Carr somehow manages to celebrate a new way of global computing at the same time reminding us that such will probably add to the continuing decline in privacy, not to mention erosion of barriers between man and machine. It is both history lesson and prophesy: looking at what we can expect in the future by examining what happened in the past. It is not meant to stop our progress, but slow us down before we fall off a cliff in our blind enthusiastic race for the Next Best Thing.

The central thesis is technology’s impact on society, describing both the intentional and unintentional effects. Equal parts anecdote and thoughtful analysis, Carr takes the reader from the industrial revolution, to the wonders of electricity, Ford’s assembly lines, and even into the home. He focuses mainly, though, on the history of computing devices, from earliest machines to today’s cloud-based ‘utility’ computing, which will, eventually banish the traditional client-server computing model in favor of some vast network of utility servers networked via fast and cheap broadband access.

Today, it’s hard to imagine computer owners in the United States and other developed countries abandoning their PCs for thin clients. Many of us, after all, have dozens or even hundreds of gigabytes of data on our personal hard drives, including hefty music and video files. But once utility services mature, the idea of getting rid of your PC will become much more attractive. At that point, each of us will have access to virtually unlimited online storage as well as a rich array of software services. We’ll also be tapping into the Net through many different devices, from mobile phones to televisions, and we’ll want to have all of them share our data and applications. Having our files and sofware locked into our PC’s hard drives will be an unnecessary nuisance. Companies like Google and Yahoo will likely be eager to supply us with all-purpose utility services, possibly including thin-client devices, for free–in return for the privilege of showing us advertisements. 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 are forced to be amateur computer technicians.

At the same time that Carr lays out this new global data hive, he also reminds us of the costs associated with all this nifty, cool, technological innovation. He recounts stories of Yahoo’s interaction with China; the continuing concerns about Google and it’s lack of transparency regarding privacy; and corporate profiting from the so-called ‘crowdsourcing’ that takes advantage of unpaid labor to fuel much of this new internet-based ‘boom’.

As for the brave new world of the future, where barriers fall, and all races, religions, and peoples mix into the great utopian society all thinkers in the past have always proposed was just around the corner, Carr sees a possible darker outcome.

Not only will the process of polarization tend to play out in virtual communities in the same way it does in neighborhoods, but it seems likely to proceed much more quickly online. In the real world, with its mortgages and schools and jobs, the mechanical forces of segregation move slowly. There are brakes on the speed with which we pull up stakes and move to a new house. Internet communities have no such constraints. Making a community-defining decision is as simple as clicking a link. 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 a small way, whom we associate with and what information we pay attention to. Given the presence of even a slight bias to be connected with people similar to ourselves–ones who share, say, our political views or our cultural preferences–we would, like Schelling’s hypothetical homeowners, end up in ever more polarized and homogeneous communities. We would click our way to a fractured society.

In many ways, Carr’s hypothesis of a ‘fractured society’ is born out in his own writing. As I read, I was impressed with both the quality of writing, and the depth of the research. However, I also experienced a sense of alienation as I progressed–a feeling that this book was written by one member of a group for other people within that group and that I was, more or less, an intruder being allowed a glimpse into a world not necessarily denied entry, but not allowed until I figured out the secret handshake.

I’ve been criticized in the past for bringing the ‘woman issue’ into supposedly unrelated topics, and most likely will be chastised again, but I came away from Carr’s book feeling like the book was written for an audience composed of people like Carr: white, upper class, well educated (or well read), affluent or semi-affluent, wired Euro-Oceanic-American men. The one time when a more feminine perspective on the coming new revolution in computing was addressed focused on the impact of electrical appliances in the home earlier in the last century. Rather than free women up to pursue other interests, Carr writes, what happened is that as more time was freed up, standards of cleanliness increased, until women were finding that we were spending the same amount of time on these household chores, regardless of helpful devices. More significantly, our measure of worth became intertwined with these tasks–an unfortunate artifact that still exists today. With women’s increasing identification with homework as a measure of worth, we became isolated from each other, as tasks that used to be completed together, in cooperation, were transformed by machines into tasks that drove us into competition–who has the cleanest house, best apple pie, and so on. From competition is a short step to isolation.

The psychic price of the new tools and the new roles they engendered was sometimes high, however. Women labored under escalating pressures: to meet the higher expectations for cleanliness and order, to purchase the latest “must have” appliance, to learn how to operate all of the new machines and keep them in working order. And, for many, electrification brought a new sense of alienation and loneliness into the house. As women took over the work required to keep house, they often found themselves spending more of their time alone, isolated in their suburban residences. They may have had their young children to keep them company, but adult companionship was usually rarer than it had been in the past when homemaking was more of a communal activity.

I expected this theme to be carried through into other discussions in the books, especially considering the ‘isolation’ of women in an environment where, supposedly, we constitute half the audience. However, we were dropped after this one section. It was both confusing and a little frustrating, and added an ironic element to the book, especially when you read Nick’s coverage of Google’s ‘personalized’ search efforts.

By filtering out “the detritus” and delivering only “the good stuff” they allow us to combine fragments of unbundled information into new bundles, tailor-made for audiences of one. They impose homogeneity on the Internet’s wild heterogeneity. As the tools and algorithms become more sophisticated and our online profiles more refined, the Internet will act increasingly as an incredibly sensitive feedback loop, constantly playing back to us, in amplified form, our existing preferences.

The increasing filtering of the ‘detritus’, as Carr so eloquently puts it, is born out in a recent discussion via email with Techmeme’s Gabe Rivera where, in a fit of pique, Rivera wrote:

You know, if a gender-neutral (i.e. gender-rigged) version of Techmeme were possible and prudent (most women I’ve talked to feel otherwise) I bet it would still link very infrequently to your blogs.

a gender-neutral (i.e. gender-rigged) version of Techmeme…

It is the insularity of Carr’s viewpoint, reflected strongly in his coverage of the topics that tempers my view of his predictions regarding the direction, and impact, of future happenings in regards to utility computing and the internet. I came away with a feeling that Carr may yet be surprised at what the future brings.

My only other quibble with the book reflects somewhat the same concerns I had with David Weinberger’s Everything is Miscellaneous: the coverage of the topics could have been more comprehensive if the books weren’t so small. I think, though, this reflects humanity’s growing inability to focus more than a certain period of time on a topic. If both Carr and Weinberger had created larger books, their audiences would have been, conversely, smaller. Carr touches on this, himself, in one of his last chapters, on a merge of man and machine through the use of AI.

The printed page, the dominant information medium of the past 500 years, molded our thinking through, as Neil Postman has written, “its emphasis on logic, sequence, history, exposition, objectivity, detachment, and discipline.” The emphasis of the Internet, our new universal medium, is altogether different. It stressed immediacy, simultaneity, contingency, subjectivity, disposability, and, above all, speed. The Net provides no incentive to stop and think deeply about anything, to construct in our memory that “dense respository” of knowledge that Foreman cherishes. It’s easier, as Kelly says, “to Google something a second or third time rather than remember it ourselves.” On the Internet, we seem impelled to glide across the slick surface of the data, as we make our rushed passage from link to link.

Perhaps Doris Lessing was right, after all. Perhaps, not.

Neither Carr’s filtered viewpoint nor the brevity of the coverage of some topics adversely impacts my appreciation of his excellent writing, and fascinating mix of historical perspective and future view. I can recommend The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, From Edison to Google. Buy it as a gift for the A-list “everything is bright, everything is beautiful, the Semantic Web 2.0 rocks” pundit in your life. Oh, and make sure they actually read it.

Graphics/CSS Photography

Picnik your Flickr

How many misspellings does it take to make a successful mashup?

Elaine posted a note about Flickr adding edit capability via Picnik. I immediately tried it out, as the following screenshots demonstrate:

[images lost]

Just as with the stand alone version of Picnik, some of the functionality is free, others are part of a premium package: $24.95 per year.

Picnik is one of the few online photo editors I did include in the book, primarily because it’s one of the better organized, and has some of the most interesting effects. One aspect I like most about it is the sliding scale tool, which provides live scaling of the image.

Picnik uses Flash, like all of the online photo editors do. Flash isn’t a requirement, though. Most of the functionality, and then some, that Picnik can do can be done with something that most people already have installed at their linux-based hosting site: ImageMagick.

To use the ImageMagick, you do need to have command line access through SSH. ImageMagick can also be installed on the Mac using Macports, and accessed via the Terminal application. Once installed, the following command:

convert purpledragon_thumb.jpg -bordercolor white \ -background DarkGray -polaroid 5 purplepolaroid.png

Creates the following effect.

Purple dragonfly polaroid

Or, you can use Picnik with the premium package.


Friday stuff

  • From Dark Roasted Blend: The Art of Extreme Sleeping. Photos of nappers from Japan, to China, to the States, including cats, kids, and Japanese girl students. An incredible photo story.
  • The “crowd-sourced justice” types (thanks to Dave Rogers for the term), may find themselves the target of the laws they advocate. One of the local laws being considered in the state of Missouri (and elsewhere) would hold sites like MySpace, Blogger, and Facebook liable for comments and posts considered ‘threatening’, or a form of harassment. The same would apply to Google, AOL, and Yahoo, for any threats or ‘harassment’ via email.
  • Today marks the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, an event celebrated less and less every year. Wired has a short and wonderfully dispassionate look at the events of the day. On the day before Pearl Harbor, my Dad turned 31 years old. He was a train conductor, somewhere over the midwestern plains. When he heard about Pearl Harbor, he got off at the next stop and immediately signed up–serving in the 82nd Airborne throughout the war. Dad received battlefield commissions, eventually making the rank of Captain. What kind of soldier was he? Well, he greatly admired Bradley, and despised Patton. That should tell you all you need to know. (via 3 Quarks Daily)
  • Discussing his new book, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, Mark Bittman writes:

    I’m not a vegetarian, and I’m not an advocate of a vegetarian diet; I’m an advocate of Americans eating fewer animal products – less meat, fish, poultry, and dairy. And there are two excellent reasons for this….First off, we eat too much of that stuff for our health; every single responsible, independent, and impartial study shows as much. But they also show that replacing the beef in your diet with potato chips and soda won’t do you any good. You can be a “vegetarian” and still eat plenty of food that’s bad for you.

    Secondly, the production of animal products as food is a major contributor to global warming. See the UN Report entitled Livestock’s Long Shadow … which says, ultimately, that 18 percent of greenhouse gasses are a direct result of the production of animals for human consumption.

    So if you cut back your consumption of animal products significantly, you not only reduce your chances of heart attack and other so-called lifestyle diseases, you reduce your carbon footprint – the impact you have on global warming.

    The concept is not to cut out all meat, but to cut down on the amount of meat we eat. Americans eat far more meat then is needed–especially with diets like Atkins, which are environmentally equivalent to Indonesia’s deforestation . Via Sierra Club Compass.

  • David Lance Goines from Illustration Art:

    I am a competent technician. I give value for value. I am an honest workman, and I do not want people to think that I am a con-man…. therefore I do not call myself an artist. I create flat, representational objects—books, illustrations, posters, stained glass windows, greeting cards, wedding invitations, wine labels–in return for money. I’m glad that people like what I do, because that means that I can go on doing it. I like what I do, and consider it a privilege to be able to make my living doing it. But, I am not, at least in twenty-first century terms, an artist. I’ll leave that to those who have no idea at all of what they do, or who they are, or where they are going, and must, for want of any other word, call themselves artists.

  • From Loren, on Following your Bliss:

    For me, at least, the best reason to spend so much time and money producing a web site is to attract others who share your interests and appreciate your efforts. Such a community has helped me to grow in ways it’s hard to imagine until you’ve actually been part of one. Virtual communities of poets, photographers, philosophers and programmers have enriched my life in ways I would never have imagined before blogging began.

Climate Change Environment

Biofuel and global warming

The Christian Science Monitor has a good article on the effects of global warming in six different countries, including Indonesia. One aspect of global warming in that country is the aggressive nature of deforestation in order to grow palm trees for palm oil for biofuel.

I am not in favor of biofuels. They do not address the problems, which is to make more efficient machinery, depend more on solar energy, and frankly, do with less. Instead, people can now have their SUVs and drive them, too, by planting corn in their tanks.

We had an issue with biofuels in this state in that one company wanted to build a corn biofuel plant using water tapped from one of Missouri’s precious non-replenishing aquifers. When asked what he would do if the plant sucked the aquifer dry, the owner just stated he would have to deal with the situation. Of course, he neglects to mention about how everyone who lives around the plant would also have to deal with the situation.

What about turning corn into biofuel? Most of the surplus corn grown in the US is sent to countries where the people are suffering drought and famine. When the corn is diverted to fuel, starvation results.

I now read that a Canadian company is building a biofuel plant here in Missouri, to make fuel from wood scraps. This sounds commendable: use scrap wood to create cleaner biofuels. However, what is never mentioned in these stories is that all biofuel production requires a great deal of water, and can have serious consequences on the land surrounding such plants.

Missouri is attractive to biofuel producers like Oregon and Washington are attractive to companies wanting to install computer server plants: we have a seemingly abundant supply of the natural resource they need. In the northwest, it’s electricity; here in Missouri, it’s water. However, as we’ve seen in Georgia, there is no guarantee that the water we have in the ground today, will be there tomorrow.

Ultimately, I don’t agree with the use of biofuels. Their use postpones the decisions we will inevitably have to make as to lifestyle; they gloss over the real issues facing the world; and they let the greedy continue their wasteful ways of life. More than that, we don’t need more industry profiting from our natural resources.

Social Media

If the lynching crowd

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

Could be persuaded to put down their tar, feathers, pitchforks, and torches, perhaps they might listen to the details coming out about Megan Meiers and the Drews and might want to consider that they acted thoughtlessly, recklessly, and without all the facts.

For six weeks, Josh and Megan traded “innocuous” messages, Banas said, with no sexual suggestion and no “demeaning or disrespectful” language sent by either.

On Oct. 15, 2006, the day before Megan committed suicide, a friend of Drew’s daughter was given the password to the Josh Evans account. The friend sent Megan a message as Josh saying he had heard Megan was mean to her friends.

The next day, the messages flew back and forth and became heated, Banas said. Other kids, who may not have known Josh was fake, began writing. They called each other names.

Josh said the world would be better off without Megan.

In the aftermath, bloggers, neighbors and leaders blamed the Drews for Megan’s death.

But on Monday, Banas said it’s unclear who created the fake MySpace profile.

Grills told lawyers that Drew wanted her to set up a fake profile.

Drew, however, said her daughter and Grills came to her with the idea. Drew agreed but told the girls they should only speak to Megan “in polite terms and not say anything disrespectful,” Banas said.

Drew told the FBI she let her daughter write Megan when she was present — only once or twice.

There is no evidence that Drew wrote a single message, Banas said.

On the day Megan hanged herself, it was Grills who wrote the final message, Banas said.

Until now, the story told was that Grills told a lawyer representing Megan’s parents that Drew was present and that she was telling Drew what she was typing.

But according to an FBI report, Drew said she wasn’t even home when the “heated exchange” between Josh and Megan took place, Banas said.

And that same report shows that Grills had changed her story: It wasn’t Lori Drew at home, but her husband, Curt Drew.

Curt Drew said he was home, Banas said, but unaware.

Grills, Banas said, was later hospitalized for psychiatric care as a result of the case. She threatened to harm herself, he said.

“That young lady and most of these people had no idea that this would happen to a young girl the way it did,” Banas said.

The account was set up because Drews daughter believe Megan was saying stuff about her, and wanted to find out what she was saying. It was childish, and Lori Drew should not have agreed, but there was no intent to callously push this child into suicide. It was only later, when in typical MySpace fashion, a pile on had occurred and brought in people totally unrelated to any of the people that things got ugly.

Lori Drew was guilty of nothing more than making a mistake in judgment. A bad mistake in judgment, but not unlike mistakes all parents make. Now, her daughter has been forced to drop out of school, her business has been destroyed, her husband has been fired from his job, and they’re being forced from their home and their neighborhood. The same people going after Lori Drew have now started going after Grills. Trying for two suicides, eh?

These are two families and a local tragedy, made global. These are two families, both with parents who did not have the sense to keep their kids away from MySpace. This was a tragic event made even more ugly via the same ‘social networking’ that led to the tragedy in the first place.

As for whether Lori Drew created this Blogger weblog think rationally: do you really believe this weblog was created by Lori Drew? When the grief counselor came to our school last year and spoke to us… Seriously?

I have to wonder at all of those people, sitting in the comfort of their homes, making their value judgments and issuing their own form of vigilante justice–at what point in time, do facts start mattering to you when it comes to your search for justice?

However, I gather that most webloggers don’t consider that they need facts. Facts are for other people. Not webloggers.

Here is a perfect example, though, of putting adult tools into the hands of children (age notwithstanding). Kids can be cruel, but in the past, such cruelty was limited to neighborhood and school. Now, cruelty’s scope is worldwide, and rather than adults acting to balance the cruelty with calm and consideration, they join in.


I am astonished–absolutely astonished–that danah boyd would believe the “Megan had it coming” weblog was written by Lori Drew. And then to perform some form of analysis based on this belief. Absolutely astonished.

While there is no lack of criticism in the weblogging world, there certainly seems to be a lack of critical thinking.