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The Big Switch: Rewiring the World from Edison to Google – Book Review – Meredith Slane

by on November 10, 2008

Rarely has a book about technology captured my attention like Nicholas Carr’s The Big Switch: Rewiring the World from Edison to Google. In just over 200 pages, Carr manages to provide a history of the modern world since the advent of electricity, demonstrating the economic and cultural implications brought about by that most ubiquitous of technologies. Comparing the current shift in computing, away from personal and corporate IT systems to the “cloud,” with that of the transformation from private sources of electricity to the public energy
grid, Carr conjectures about what our future may bring. At times terrifying in its bleak portrait of a seemingly inevitable machine-driven world, The Big Switch makes relocating to a Luddite community in the middle of nowhere seem all the more appealing.

Carr uses an historical perspective, attempting to understand how our world is changing by comparing what he terms the World Wide Computer to the electric utility grid. Carr (2008) writes “All historical models and analogies have their limits, of course, and information technology differs from electricity in many important ways. But beneath the technical differences, electricity and computing share deep similarities—similarities that are easy for us to overlook today”
(p. 14). This is the main thrust of his argument, one which he uses to great effect. He explains that, though electricity seems commonplace today, at its inception it was “an untamed and unpredictable force that changed everything it touched” (Carr, 2008, p. 14). Even Thomas Edison, whose harnessing of electricity may be the single most important factor in the creation of modern society, was unable see its potential for wide scale deployment as a public utility. Instead, it took Samuel Insull, Edison’s former clerk and mentee, who worked to convince
industry giants to abandon their legacy systems and plug into the grid. In much the same way, forward-thinking companies such as salesforce.com and Google are pushing corporations and PC users to embrace the World Wide Computer, dumping their current systems for thin client computing.

Though Carr believes this move toward utility computing is inevitable, he is slow to join those idealists who predict a Utopian society. He acknowledges that the Internet and computing, in general, have allowed society to change at an unparalleled rate. What remains to be seen, however, are the implications of this change. For example, Carr asserts that large scale economic shifts should be anticipated. While Carr explains that the increase in cheap electricity (brought about by the adoption of the public energy grid) helped grow the American middle class, he isn’t so sanguine about our future economies (driven by the adoption of the World Wide Computer). In his chapter entitled “From the Many to the Few,” Carr demonstrates how this change may play out in the global market. Increasingly, lean organizations are able thrive and grow without the addition/burden of a large workforce. User-generated content, like that found on Flickr, Craigslist, and YouTube, ensures that such sites are continually updated without requiring a large staff of photographers, writers, or videographers. One stunning example helps quantify this phenomenon:

Every day, people all over the world watched more than 100 million YouTube video clips and uploaded some 65,000 new videos to the site. And those numbers were growing at an exponential pace, which explained why Google was willing to spend so much to buy the young company. At the $1.65 billion sale price, each YouTube employee represented $27.5 million in market value. Compare that to a traditional, and fabulously profitable, software company like Microsoft, which has 70,000 employees, each representing $4 million in market value. Or compare it to a traditional media and entertainment company like Walt Disney, with about 133,000 employees, each representing $500,000 in value. (Carr, 2008, p. 130)

Even some services are being replaced by the World Wide Computer. Skype, which is an Internet phone company, was running with only 200 employees (at the time it was purchased by eBay), even as their customers numbered upwards of 53 million. As Carr (2008) states, “traditional firms may have no choice but to refashion their own businesses along similar lines, firing many millions of employees in the process” (p. 134).

Further reason for concern is Carr’s examination of the disappearing American middle class. Unlike electricity (which drove the need for more workers, including managers, as a result of the increasing production of consumer goods), the World Wide Computer not only allows “volunteers” to shoulder most of the work through sites which utilize user-generated content, but also adds to the disparity between the rich and the poor. Companies have been able to outsource knowledge work since the Internet makes location less of an issue. Carr writes that even jobs we wouldn’t imagine being transferred overseas, such as the reading of x-rays, are now being done by workers in other countries. For the American workforce, this has kept pay rates fairly stagnant for the past two decades as more and more companies tap into an ever expanding global market willing to work for less. At the same time, the very rich are getting richer. Since the 1980s, when computing technologies first began to heavily enter the business realm, the wealthy have increased their share of the total economy in a way that has never before been seen. Carr (2008) writes, “The share of the income held by the top 0.1 percent of American families more than tripled between 1980 and 2004, jumping from 2 percent to 7 percent” (pg. 144). Citing experts such as Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Columbia University economist Jagdish Bhagwati, Carr’s argument is convincing.

Also frightening is what our reliance on the World Wide Computer will do to our thought processes. Already there are signs that we favor “googling” something multiple times, rather than committing it to memory. For Google, this is good news. Sergey Brin and Larry Page,
Google’s co-founders, have consistently expressed their desire to create the first all-encompassing artificial intelligence. They envision “improving” the brain by plugging into the World Wide Computer through some type of “wireless brain appliance” (Carr, 2008, pg. 213).
Unwittingly, anyone who has ever used Google’s search engine has contributed to this effort. Carr (2008) reasons, “Every time we write a link, or even click on one, we are feeding our intelligence into Google’s system” (p. 219). Though this may seem a product of the distant future, Carr notes that it may occur much sooner than we think: researchers have predicted that we may be able to connect our brains to Google as early as 2020. Carr also describes a recently patented technology currently under development at Microsoft which aims to “turn skin into a new kind of electrical conduit […] that can be used to connect ‘a network of devices coupled to a single body’” (Carr, 2008, pg. 216). In other words, Microsoft aims to use our bodies as “data-transmission buses,” even allowing for the transfer of information through a simple handshake.

The Big Switch is an important read. Written with clarity and language even non-technophiles can understand, Carr’s book is alarming, but not alarmist. His arguments are well laid and backed by extensive research. A former executive editor of the Harvard Business Review,
Carr cites sources as disparate as a Playboy interview with the founders of Google to Patent No. 6,754,472 to a US Department of Defense report. Though his scope is sweeping, from the late 17th century into the future, from military contingency plans to attack the Internet to the search logs of a sixty-two year old widow, Carr remains focused, delivering a concise and thoughtful message: we must be weary of Utopian views of the future and ready to adapt to the ever-increasing melding of the physical world with the virtual.

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