It's very tempting to think that change will happen quickly. That's probably because we seldom notice all the things that shift in small and sometimes hidden ways to conspire for the change that will take place.
As well, predictions are always long while time seems short. Yet, change happens and when it does in substantial ways, our lives are swept along with it as entire industries seem to disappear overnight.
My great grandmother was born in 1889. When she was young, she saw the first steam engine cars and thought that they would not take hold. She died in 1989 after witnessing two World Wars and the rest of transportation technology that filled the world she knew.
"There’s a paradox in all disruptive new technologies. The powerful lure of new ideas can make them seem inevitable. Yet it often takes very long for these ideas to have an effect. Large sums have been sunk in the existing infrastructure, behaviours change slowly and smarter new ideas may come along. That makes it hard for the layperson to distinguish between the true visionaries of the Information Age and the hype merchants who are simply riding the latest tech bandwagon."
This is the introduction on "cloud computing" in a recent article by the Financial Times. Utility computing, the main concept behind the book by Nicholas Carr, The Big Switch, is a flavor of the same idea. Carr uses the metaphor of electrification to explain the evolution of computing. Computing is turning into a utility. Cheap, utility-supplied computing will ultimately change society as profoundly as cheap electricity did, he says.
Carr uses historical analysis to build the ideas that the Internet is following the same developmental path as electric power did 100 years ago. In the second section of the book, he discusses the economic, social and other issues associated with the Internet becoming the platform and marketplace for commerce.
The book starts with the historical position of water power, the precursor to electricity, and then explains conceptually what these different technologies mean. In Burden's Wheel Carr points out the unique economic impact of General Purpose Technologies -- the few technologies that are the basis for a multitude of other economic activity.
That is followed by The Inventor and His Clerk, which is a historical account of the early days of electricity. The chapter focuses largely on the development and adoption of electric power. It points out that electric power had some false starts such as Edison's instance on local DC plants -- it needed the development of some additional technologies to take off. This chapter is well researched and was fascinating to read. I would refer back to the argument laid out by the Financial Times writer here, sometimes we can prove something just because we want to.
Digital Millwork discusses the recent history of the computer. Carr sees bandwidth as the savior of computing much in the same way that the dynamo and Tesla's AC power turned electric plants into regional power companies. Here Carr connects the history of the electricity at the turn of the 20th
century with the development of computing at the turn of the 21st century.
A future of virtual computing where physical location and device based software licensing no longer exist is the central idea of Goodbye, Mr. Gates. In this chapter Carr introduces Google with the positive voice I noticed in an article he authored for Strategy+Business titled The Google Enigma.
In The White City Carr turns away from a continued development of the technical ideas of virtualization and grid computing and moves back into a historical discussion of how electricity changed people's lives and societies. He provides information to set the reader up to make a comparison to what the switch to the Internet might be. His discussions of Insull and Ford are interesting, if brief.
The central chapter of the book, titled World Wide Computer returns to the notion of what the unbridled possibilities of the programmable Internet might be. We take a peak, albeit brief, on the
future of corporate computing. The IT we know today will go away and end users will be in charge. I do wonder if the individual with (potentially) infinite information and computing power available to them will enjoy that power.
One question to Carr here: why coin a new term, world wide computer?
From the Many to the Few is a discussion of the social impacts of a programmable Internet where each runs their own personal business and is a brand. The example he chooses is the video Chad Hurley and Steve Chen shot to thank the YouTube community for essentially making them rich with the Google buyout.
I could not help but think about the first bubble. Washington Post Steve Pearlstein's quote sums it up nicely,
"More powerful computers and software and the Internet have reduced demand for travel agents, retail salesmen and inventory control specialists, while making it possible for companies to outsource to India and Poland work like computer programming, tax preparation and customer service."
In this chapter, Carr also highlights that the availability of free resources, in addition to automation are eroding the economic power of individuals.
The Great Unbundling talks about the move from mass markets to markets of one. To do that, Carr uses the example of the forced unbundling of the news business online. Similar to the post I mentioned recently by Dave Morgan at AOL. For example, to gain traction in a crowded marketplace for ideas, The Times of London admits that it has already begun training its reporters to craft their stories in ways that lead to higher placements in search engines. While the financial return in print is part of the magazine or paper, online each individual story needs to earn traffic on its own. The compromise that many journalists may have to make subtracts to all of us.
The chapter also talks about the social implications of a web that connects like people creating a tribal and increasingly multi-polar world, rather than the world wide consciousness assumed to arise when education and communications levels increase. This is the same argument Stephen Baker at BusinessWeek used to counter one of the ideas I exposed in the post Artificial Intelligence agents as conversation agents to which I countered with AI Agents as Discovery Channels.
In Fighting the Net Carr discusses the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of free flowing information and the structural integrity of the net. He does not include public policy recommendations to address the points he makes. These policy recommendations are important especially in the light of an increased need for security and the desire for privacy.
Which he addressed in A Spider's Web. Here he shares the realization that as Richard Hunter says "we live in a world without secrets". This chapter is a warning about the issues of privacy and what it means to do business where everything is recorded and tracked. I've been on the soap box on privacy issues in many posts from Trading Trust for Cash to Facebook Beacon: Brands Guilty by Association?
Finally, iGod talks about the fusion of human and machine consciousness. What is possible when the human brain can immediately access infinite information and the machine gains artificial intelligence? These are the questions raised but not addressed. It indeed reminded me of Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey as Brin (Google) is quoted mentioning the film on NewsHour.
Overall the book reads very well, even though I am left wanting more in depth analysis of the implications. Carr could have also researched and expanded upon the role that gender equality brought to the thinking in the workplace -- particularly since women tend to think more connectively. I bring it up because the only mention of women in the book is relegated to the history of housekeeping and cleaning.
I recommend the book to those of you who are keen on ramping up quickly to where we are today on technology, namely the announcements by Google, Microsoft and IBM among others, that they are entering The Wisdom of Clouds as Stephen Baker puts it in his in depth article at BusinessWeek.