[Book Review] The Big Switch by Nicholas Carr

[Book Review] The Big Switch by Nicholas Carr feature image

Nicholas Carr is a skilled professional author. Since the dawn of his career, Carr is possessed by a vigorous passion for investigating the impacts of technology on society and human cognition, notably focusing on the adverse ones. His work is acclaimed to have caused immense criticism from a number of major IT companies, along with an affluence of mixed reactions from a broader audience (Levy, 2003), primarily as a result of the author’s radical way of thinking. Although his reasoning may be regarded as questionable, it is generally well-substantiated over comprehensive analysis. “The Big Switch”, one of his latest books, is no exception.

In this book, Carr leverages his expressiveness and exceptional storytelling technique to place state-of-the-art advancements in a historical context, and compares the innovations we are observing today to preceding technological changes and eras. In actual fact, the book is consisted of two distinct parts, each of them giving the impression of an autonomous, individual book.

In the first part of the book, the author reveals the conditions under which electricity made its way into the mainstream culture in the US, both in businesses and households, towards the end of the 19th century. The vast spread of that technology and its socioeconomic impacts are put into contrast with modern information systems, indicating that history is formed of patterns that repeat themselves. Carr predicts that soon, as in electricity, people will move away from costly proprietary hardware in favor of remotely-accessed computing resources, offered as a utility over the Internet.

In the second part, the book takes an unexpected turn. The author becomes highly judgmental of computer systems in a more general manner, referring to them as “technologies of control” and illustrating a number of detrimental effects they appear to have introduced on society. Despite the numerous advantages of “the big switch” – the paradigm shift in computing as a utility and the prevalence of “the cloud” as a model of the latter, Carr remains focused on its negative consequences, such as the rise of “techno-utopianism” which can lead to cultural depletion and social fragmentation.

Overview – Part 1 – “One Machine”

“…and likewise all parts of the system must be constructed with reference to all other parts, since, in one sense, all the parts form one machine.” —Thomas Edison

The book starts in the mid-18th century, portraying Henry Burden’s impressive invention: the largest and most powerful power generating waterwheel ever created. Despite its huge potential, about half a century later, that machine along with numerous other power generating inventions like steam engines was abandoned in favor of a new, revolutionizing power source; cheap electricity produced in remote power plants and transmitted directly into factories through a wide structure of cables. It is stated that tapping into that power source became a competitive requirement, as individual producing power with such low cost was practically impossible for any company. Heavy investments in private complex, unreliable, and costly power generating systems was simply not an option any more.

Thereafter, Carr creates an analogy between electricity and computing, in the essence that both technologies can be distributed efficiently over a great distance through a network. He describes how centralization of computing has been taking form during the 21st century, and makes a prediction that in the near future cheap computing will be provided as a utility through the Internet, resulting in companies moving away from privately owned expensive resources.

Next, Carr further depicts the events that led into transforming electricity to a generally available utility. He explains how Samuel Insull got inspired from Thomas Edison and was able to further expand the latter’s vision of electricity. In addition, he argues about how Nicholas Tesla finally completed the puzzle of distributing electrical current over large distances. The reader is fully immersed into the book, as Carr travels through history to make apparent how the utility finally prospered and the age of the private power plant finally ended.

Then the author jumps into the near past to explain how Microsoft, Google, Amazon and other major corporations got prepared for facing the cloud era. Specifically Google invested hugely in creating modern data centers possessing computing power never seen before. Those centers were mainly used for powering the famous Google’s search engine, transforming the whole Web in the process.

Soon after that, many companies became focused on the “software as a service” model, providing services over the Internet for a low cost. A striking example is Salesforce, which first delivered a Customer Relations Management system (CRM) through the Web. The new model enjoyed great success, and soon the global market expanded for both business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) services.

At this point, Carr enters into some technical details, explaining the basic principles and technologies that make cloud computing possible. Virtualization is described as the basis of everything, allowing multiple distinct operations to run independently on shared hardware, therefore isolating executing environments in favor of security as well as achieving optimal utilization of resources within a data center. Multi-tenant service architecture is also a vital part of cloud solutions, allowing multiple tenants (users) to use a common application. Each of the users is under the illusion of being the only one using the system. As services continue moving into that direction, the concept of “the thin client” becomes more relevant – traditional PCs replaced by mere monitors hooked on the Internet.

There is also an extensive analysis of the societal consequences brought about by such a change. In brief, there was a large shift in workforce demand, where trading skills gave their place to deeper knowledge and expertise. As a result, the trained middle class was born, and many positive steps were made into improving the existing education system.

Overview – Part 2 – Living in the cloud

“We shape our tools and thereafter they shape us.” — John M. Culkin

In the second part of the book the tone changes dramatically. Carr repeatedly refers to the Web as “the programmable Internet” and “the world-wide computer”, keenly focusing on the negative impacts it makes on society. He explains how ARPANET transformed into the Internet, and how a CERN employee called Tim Berners-Lee laid the foundations of the World Wide Web. By making a universal medium available to a much broader audience, the Web had a huge impact on the Internet, transforming it into a commercial enterprise. Having said that, the author continues by explaining how computing actually differs from electricity.

A hypothesis of major significance the author formulates is that traditional IT departments are already facing extinction as the greatest amount of computing business is moving out of proprietary data centers and into the cloud. The global workforce demand is also predicted to be reduced, as the virtual unlimited computing power and storage offered by the cloud can exponentially multiply the efforts of a single worker. As a result, the author predicts that the gap between upper and lower social classes will soon be highly enlarged.

Next, the problem with free goods is put on the table. While manufacturing and distributing costs are continuously declining, a “world of infinite variety” is unfolding before us. The author is convinced that “more choices don’t necessarily mean better choices”. As people are getting used to cheap products and services, some quality goods that are de facto expensive to make are prone to suffer losses, even disappear from the market. Moreover, Carr supports that computerization may create new work, but a kind of work that can be done by machines, making people obsolete.

With the booming of Web 2.0, an ever-growing amount of user-generated content began flowing towards the Internet. Corporations soon realized the potential of exploiting that content for their own benefit. By inventing new, ingenious marketing models, they were able to commercialize that content without users even knowing. The phenomenon of harnessing voluntary labor over the Internet was called “crowdsourcing”. Carr discusses several examples of such services, like YouTube, Craigslist and Skype. He indicates that although those services are charging nothing to their users, they generate revenue through advertising and sponsorships. Every single user increases their significance without the former being aware of it.

“The Great Unbundling” is another interesting concept discussed in this part. By allowing information to be selectively sought and accessed, the Internet has granted customers the ability to ignore content perceived as irrelevant, and focus on what really matters to them. Reading a single article out of a whole newspaper, or purchasing a single tune out of a whole music album was not possible in the pre-Internet era. Today, each of them is becoming a separate product, thus shattering the bundle. Also, along with the booming of the Web, an affluence of information beyond conception became widely available. Carr stresses the fact that despite the positive aspects of that phenomenon, it ultimately promotes extremism and polarization, as people tend to focus on content that promotes their own beliefs and ignore or disdain the rest.

Security on the Internet is a matter of great concern for everybody. It is true that despite the Internet’s great role in modern society, there are vast security issues that have not been resolved yet. To quote the author, “given its centrality to the world‘s economy, the Net is a surprisingly insecure infrastructure”. The lack of security is not a new phenomenon for the web, but its progression towards utility computing only exacerbates this problem. The virtually unlimited resources of the cloud are also benefitting malicious users, multiplying the amount of harm they can impose. In addition, Carr describes how every user click is logged, stored, and used to distill valuable information about both individually and collectively user behavior. This profiling process is mostly taking place without the user knowing or consenting, thus their privacy is constantly being violated.

The book concludes by examining the potential impacts of artificial intelligence on human. By achieving singularity – the human and computer intelligences merged and acting as one entity – humanity may vastly improve its physical limitations in terms of accessing, processing or storing information. At that point, we will be able “to interact directly with computers by merely thinking”. But the author is also deeply concerned that our behavior will be prone to direct influence, and like computers, humans will become programmable too. To stress out the potential danger even more, Carr wraps up by assuming that the “world-wide machine” will eventually learn enough from us and, while developing its own rules, will stop following our instructions.

Evaluation

Nicholas Carr is a gifted author and his reputation of being highly controversial in nature precedes him. He initially became popular by publishing an article called “IT doesn’t matter” (Carr, 2003), causing wide discussions and endless debates between IT professionals. After reading both the article and “The Big Switch” book, one can easily conclude that the latter serves as an extended defense of the former.

Approximately seven years after being published, the book barely offers new information to the reader, which is a typical predicament for technology-related books. Although large numbers of typical business requirements cannot yet be entirely supported by any modern cloud infrastructure, numerous IT people have already switched from the typical client-server model to the internet-based utility model. On the other hand, the business, financial and cultural dimensions of technology discussed in “The Big Switch” are not accompanied with concrete answers, rather target to sow the seeds of deeper questioning. Seen in that context, it is still relevant to read.

The book is a double narrative. The first part outlines the historical progress of electricity as a point of reference to describe the similarities and differences against the evolution of the Internet over the years, as well as its future. It ends with an extensive description of how the wide spread of electricity transformed the society, reducing the demand for trading-based skills and respectively raising the need for expert workers, thus establishing the trained white-collar middle class. The analogy of computing and electricity is suitable and clear to comprehend, although as every analogy, this one also has its limitations. Further comparisons of computing with the influence of commercial trains, ships or airplanes on society could have revealed additional insights.

Although the second part begins by enumerating the potential benefits of the “cloud of networked computers” as a unified platform for social communication, technological innovation and conducting business, and overall emits a positive aura in its perspective, this feeling is soon reversed. In the remainder of the book, the author desperately tries to stress out the adverse impacts of the Internet on society. He points out the continuously growing gap between the upper and lower classes, the social isolation the Internet drives people at, the security vulnerabilities that the Internet still suffers from, as well as the declining privacy of the individual as a consequence of a highly networked reality. The book concludes by raising concerns about artificial intelligence and the man’s efforts for achieving singularity.

Following through Carr’s reasoning, one can pinpoint some reliable socioeconomic observations, although he does not suggest any alternative courses or possible solutions about the problems he highlights. As the author himself is not an IT person, he fails to fully comprehend how technology really works, resulting to some shallow conclusions. Maybe in an alternative reality simple users are able to master sophisticated IT solutions and perform all operations formerly administered by the IT work force, while computing utility providers in “the cloud” supply what is missing. But in this reality Information Technology, primarily characterized by its excessive complexity, has become the nerve system of every modern organization and in fact it matters more than ever.

On the other hand, through his exaggeration, the author achieves to disprove of the “techno-utopians”, the ones that are putting their blind faith into technology as they are failing to acknowledge that disruptive innovation can often lead to unpredicted, acute implications. As he specifically states: “although, as we saw with electrification, optimism is a natural response to the arrival of a powerful and mysterious new technology, it can blind us to more troubling portents”, and also: “there is reason to believe that our cybernetic meadow may be something less than a new Eden”.

Despite the book’s shortcomings, Carr strikes the reader to having legitimate intentions in terms of raising awareness. Ultimately he manages to stimulate thoughts that will possibly stick to the reader’s mind for a substantial amount of time. Also cloud computing has dramatically increased in terms of popularity since the book has been published, so the reader is aided in realizing what the society is dealing with, either voluntarily or not.

Finally, the President of the US, Barrack Obama, has recently stated that Internet access should be classified as a utility, promoting the so called “net neutrality” (Eadicicco, 2014). This can be definitely characterized a step towards realizing some of Carr’s major predictions.

Conclusion

This book is a decent introduction to the field of cloud computing. As years have passed since the book’s initial release and the “The Big Switch” is already happening, the disagreements and debates between IT professionals about Carr’s eccentric way of thinking have been noticeably diminished.

Numerous cloud providers have already walked past the point where their users can be considered as early adopters, providing their computing utility worldwide. For all kinds of businesses, especially startup companies, harvesting the power of the cloud can reveal tremendous opportunities for achieving growth. Having limited economic resources, a startup can be highly benefitted by paying only for what it truly needs, avoiding the waste of expensive proprietary computing and networking resources.

In conclusion, the book is recommended for anyone that is not already familiar with the cloud computing model. It is not a technical book, so it is not really recommended for IT professionals, although its socioeconomic extensions could benefit any type of reader.

References

Carr, N., 2003. *Roughtype.com. *[Online] Available at: http://www.roughtype.com/?p=644
[Accessed 08 12 2014].

Eadicicco, L., 2014. *Business Insider. *[Online] Available at: http://uk.businessinsider.com/president-obama-thinks-the-internet-should-be-a-utility-2014-11?r=US
[Accessed 5 12 2014].

Levy, S., 2003. *Newsweek. *[Online] Available at: http://www.newsweek.com/twilight-pc-era-131855
[Accessed 1 12 2014].


Anastasios Piotopoulos
Written by Anastasios Piotopoulos
Senior Software Engineer
M.Sc. in Software Engineering