Sunday, January 20, 2008

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

The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, From Edison to Google by Nicholas Carr (Norton) is reviewed in today's San Francisco Chronicle by Mary Eisenhart, taking up the question of whether the IT revolution will have an impact on society and culture similar to the electrification. Eisenhart writes:
Carr's core insight, which he develops in the first half of the book, is that the development of the computer and the Internet remarkably parallels that of the last radically disruptive technology, electricity. He traces the rapid morphing of electrification from an in-house competitive advantage to a ubiquitous utility, and how the business advantage rapidly shifted from the innovators and early adopters to corporate titans who made their fortune from controlling a commodity essential to everyday life.

Just so, he writes, the personal computer, the Internet and the World Wide Web may be largely the creation of visionaries and tech wizards and offered short-term advantages to early adopters, but we're already seeing the migration of those resources to a centralized utility in which it makes ever less sense for businesses or individuals to own their own technology; the value lies in the ability to connect to the system. As former Sun chairman Scott McNealy used to say back in the '80s, "The network is the computer."...

Carr devotes the second half of his book to the study of unintended (at least by the innovators and cheerleaders) consequences of the 20th century's technological breakthroughs and likely parallels in the 21st's. While ubiquitous electricity created widespread benefits, it hardly delivered the drudgery-free paradise its more over-the-top enthusiasts predicted - although, as the apotheosis of the Industrial Revolution, it did throw hordes of skilled and unskilled laborers out of work, amid plenty of other repercussions.

The advent of electric household appliances, for example, may have reduced the need for domestic servants, but it created corresponding pressure on the individual homemaker to maintain an impossible (and marketing-driven) standard of sparkling perfection - Carr notes, for example, that the electric iron made it socially unacceptable for even children to go about in wrinkled clothing. The net result was a world in which women were increasingly confined to their homes and deprived of adult conversation, just because running the home "efficiently" had become a full-time job: "The housewife, like the factory hand, had become an essential cog in the great technological machine that was producing a more advanced civilization."

Looking for similar dystopian developments in the present day, Carr finds many - driven, as with electricity, by the dual forces of profit and control. He points, for example, to the rapid erosion of his own field, journalism, by "user-generated content" and the increased unwillingness of the population to pay for content, be it music, video or investigative reporting - which, when combined with the growing ability of advertisers to quantify results and reluctance to pay for anything that doesn't help their bottom line, is fast rendering anything but product-pushing economically unsustainable. Similar disruptions are occurring across the board in occupations that have largely sustained the middle class, as knowledge and expertise are offloaded from the individual brain to the centralized machine - with dire social and economic consequences but great power and revenues for those who control the machine.

While technological innovation is largely the creation of idealistic geniuses spurred on by utopian visions, Carr points out, it is rapidly co-opted by the incumbent in power and turned to other purposes....Carr quotes former Wired editor and perennial hive-mind enthusiast Kevin Kelly, who proclaims: "The more we teach this megacomputer, the more it will assume responsibility for our knowing. It will become our memory. Then it will become our identity. In 2015 many people, when divorced from the Machine, won't feel like themselves - as if they'd had a lobotomy."

The rest is here.