Book review: The Big Switch – Nicholas Carr


The Big Switch by Nicholas Carr – W. W. Norton & Co, Feb 2008; ISBN 978-0393062281

The Big Switch is tech journalist Nicholas Carr’s attempt to peer a very short way into the future where, instead of a World Wide Web, we will have a World Wide Computer.

It’s a brisk and engaging book, ideal for anyone interested in technology and its interactions with our culture, society and economics.

But in addition to that, it’s written in an almost science fictional mode. Carr is playing the classic game of science fiction writing – the game of “what if this carries on?”

Hence The Big Switch is a great read for sf writers, especially those interested in Mundane SF* and the near-future scenarios familiar to readers of Stross and Doctorow, among many others.

Carr is a respected journalist, but unpopular among the computer industry for making claims that they don’t like. His previous book Does IT Matter? postulated that perhaps the modern business focus on “IT first, everything else second” isn’t the essential path it is often made out to be – probably not the best way to endear yourself to the tech evangelists.

Like its predecessor, The Big Switch turns a critic and skeptical eye on the development of this World Wide Computer, or “The Cloud” as Carr refers to it (a name I would like to claim to have been the first fiction writer to steal and use in context**). The Cloud is the ultimate end-point of web-based applications like GMail, Picnik and so on: software as service; a ubiquitous cloud of computation.

Carr’s central thesis is that computing is becoming a utility. Like electricity before it, computing is a technology that completely revolutionises economic paradigms on a global scale, and Carr samples liberally from the history of electrification to lay the foundations for his arguments in the first third of the book – the whole of which is soundly rooted in simple economic principles.

The idea that we are approaching a world of ubiquitous software-as-service is not what Carr is out to challenge, however. Indeed, he seems to consider it a given, as do most of the detractors he quotes later on. What they and Carr are questioning is whether it will produce McLuhanville, the shiny happy global electronic village that the blue-sky thinkers would have us believe awaits us just around the next corner.

For change is inevitable, but comes with consequences. The increasing penetration of electricity into daily life – both at work and at home – brought greater convenience and a reduction of drudgery, but it also reduced workforce sizes at the same time while replacing many skilled jobs with more menial tasks in service to the more efficient (and tireless) machines, not to mention producing a whole slew of new household tasks that were never considered essential before.

Carr argues that computing-as-utility is already having a similar effect and will continue to do so, and it’s hard to claim he’s wrong. That said, I think he’s overstating some of the problems.

For instance, he worries about the shift among younger consumers to online news sources, where every page has to be monetised on a pay-per-impression basis, leading to an increase in sensationalist stories that may have little relation to neutrality and objectivity, especially in the case of local media.

Which leads me to assume that local media in the US must have been of an infinitely higher standard than ours here in the UK – which has always been exactly the sort of hype-laden fact-free eyeball saccharine that Carr seems worried web media will make ubiquitous. I suspect (and quite understand) that Carr may be unconsciously repeating the fears of an industry he has long been a part of.

The death of investigative reporting is of far greater concern. But it seems curious to me that Carr – a man who uses economics as the engine of his arguments – doesn’t believe that the desire for investigative reporting will create a market for it.

Sure, the old business model of the newspaper ads paying for the bold scribe to head off to the warzones or poke around in the soiled innards of evil corporations and governments is probably finished.

But there is still a significant section of society that wants to learn those things, as well as a section who will want to be the people who find the story and spill the beans. The payment channels will emerge somehow; the market will find a way … though I’m not so ignorant of economic principles as to suggest that there won’t be any blood on the carpet in the process.

But what if the web, instead of bringing us into the global village of mutual communication, actually enhances the societal rifts that already exist? Carr cites studies of political bloggers (left and right) in the US that suggest the vast majority of them read and link strictly within their own spheres of belief, rarely linking to dissenting views. Which is almost certainly true – but there’s wiggle room in that interpretation.

It doesn’t seem to take into account that people blogging on politics are generally the sort of obsessive axe-grinders who had no interest in dissenting views before the internet arrived***. It also skips the fact that the hypothetical “clean slate” reader (if such a person can even exist) can get both sides of the picture if they so choose, from the same screen using the same search engine**** – something that no newspaper has ever enabled before.

Carr’s concerns are justified – but overemphasised, perhaps. Only time will tell. But enough of my opinions – I’m no economist, nor a politician. The point of the above paragraphs is to indicate that this is the sort of book that gets your brain working overtime. By suggesting potential futures, Carr makes you test them, examine them, poke them with metaphorical sticks – and come up with your own in response.

And as such, The Big Switch is a great book for science fiction writers and readers who like to adventure beyond the stories and into the technology from time to time.

I mean, come on – if even ten years ago you had suggested that one of the world’s most respected technology journalists would write a book in which he not only declares that the CEOs of the world’s biggest computing company are obsessed with turning that company’s infrastructure into a huge artificial intelligence, but also claims that he thinks they have a good chance of achieving it***** … well, you’d have filed it under sf straight away, wouldn’t you?

Times change, quickly – The Big Switch lets us look at what might be around the next hairpin.

Meanwhile, there’s a brief interview with Carr at Wired, and his blog Rough Type is a good addition to the RSS collection of any genuinely open-minded futurist.

[* If it’s not an oxymoron to be interested in Mundane SF, as some people claim.]

[** Though some bugger has doubtless beaten me to it decades ago in a story I’ve never read.]

[*** Political blogs generally tend to horrify me, regardless of the side of the spectrum they are written from. And if the writers are scary, the commenters often make me ashamed to be human.]

[**** Although here the spectre of search engines voluntarily self-censoring for oppressive regimes does raise its head, but that’s a very complicated issue.]

[***** Not quite the way we think of AI, granted, but close enough.]

# Full disclosure – received my ARC of The Big Switch from Nicholas Carr’s publicist after applying for one in a giveaway at Rough Type (Carr’s blog). I was under no obligation to review it, and have only done so because I genuinely believe it will be of interest to my readers here at VCTB. #

[tags]Nicholas Carr, The Big Switch, software, service, computing, cloud, futurism[/tags]

3 thoughts on “Book review: The Big Switch – Nicholas Carr”

  1. “The Cloud is the ultimate end-point of web-based applications like GMail, Picnik and so on: software as service; a ubiquitous cloud of computation.”

    Oracle and SUN tried pushing this idea ten years ago, but no one bought iinto it – chiefly because they were unwilling to hand their data over to a third party for storage. Attitudes have changed and that’s less of an obstacle – fears of identity theft, notwithstanding. Having said that, we didn’t have the infrastructure then to support “network computing”, and we still don’t have it. Applications expand to fill the bandwidth available, and I don’t see the sort of quantum leap happening that ubiquitous web apps need to expand into.

  2. Eh, a cloud is a big white fluffy thing in the sky. I’ve flown threw one, like, 4 times and there weren’t any computers in there. In fact, I’d say a computer would fall right through a cloud unless it was really light…

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