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.

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