The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, From Edison to Google

March 13, 2008

In The Big Switch, Nicholas Carr provides clear and insightful accounts of leading technological initiatives and business models to convey his vision of how the Edisons of the digital age are transforming the internet. He moves beyond a treatment of technical innovations to consider their societal implications.

The book begins with a trip to a data centre in Boston where Carr felt he was "entering a new world" in which computing was supplied to companies just as central power plants provided electricity - as a utility. He then describes a coming switch from a client-server computing model, based on a personal computer linked to a shared server, to a "giant information utility" in which the internet will provide information services much as Google provides search services now.

He identifies the economic imperatives behind this shift, enabled by the diffusion of broadband connectivity and fibre-optic communication channels. Advances in communications could make it faster and more flexible to obtain services from a network than from personal computers. Users will plug into this World Wide Computer - a "cloud" of data and services - through an array of terminals, PCs, game consoles and mobile internet devices.

To explain this shift and its drivers, Carr uses a series of analogies, mainly comparing the history of information processing with the generation of power. This provides rich historical examples that show how information technologies, such as the internet, have evolved.

The transition from the PC age to the utility age will have consequences. Companies anchored in the client-server model, such as Microsoft, will race to reinvent themselves for a world in which the internet is our computer. Organisations such as universities and firms will reconsider what IT services can be provided better by new utilities than by themselves. Some problems might be "crowdsourced", as in open-source approaches to products such as Wikipedia.

Carr's technological forecast is not new and follows a relatively deterministic technical rationality, but his depiction of this shift is the most lucid and accessible. His treatment of the societal implications is less deterministic than his technical vision but more original. He sees potential advantages, including reduced costs and enhanced security. And he acknowledges the creativity of user-generated content, from blogs to videos. But he sees risks in the loss of personal privacy, threats to the quality and diversity of information, and the loss of jobs.

Carr enables the reader to envisage users becoming a "global pool" of cheap labour for the "digital elite". Rather than creating an information utopia through user content and open source, the Edisons of the digital age are reaping billions of dollars from the free labour of users, while at the same time reducing the ranks of paid information workers such as journalists and editors, and contributing to "widening the divide between haves and have-nots".

His 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.

The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, From Edison to Google

By Nicholas Carr
W. W. Norton & Company
224pp
£15.99
ISBN 9780393062281
Published 1 February 2008

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