The Big Switch: book review

I wrote the following book review, by kind invitation, for the Irish Times Innovation supplement, and which was published today.

Nicholas Carr came to notoriety in 2003 for asserting that information technology no longer delivers a competitive edge. He claimed that although such technology is a prerequisite of any enterprise, it is no more so than electricity or telephones. Likewise, he argued, neither electricity, phones nor computer technology give competitive advantage, since everybody else has these too. Fortunately companies like Capital One, Southwest Airlines, Goldman Sachs, Toyota and many others ignored him. Police and the security forces, and the military, are not the only organizations who extensively exploit computers and software to overcome aggressive adversity from the opposition. Information Technology can strategically be used to give competitive advantage.

His latest book, The Big Switch, is in two parts. The first gives a charming history of the electricity industry and some comparisons to the computer industry. For computer industry practitioners and technology historians alike, it is a light, interesting and innocuous read.

The second part is more significant. Carr bleakly observes complacency and naivety amongst internet advocates. Rather than the internet being a liberalizing force for global humanity or an empowerment away from governments and towards their peoples, Carr sees dangerous forces at work which may be concentrating power and immense wealth in a few fortunate individuals and in specific companies, as well as of course manipulation of populations by governments. Google comes in for particular attention, in the entire concluding chapter of the book. Carr discusses Google’s reputed quest to exploit artificial intelligence to the fullest by using the knowledge inherent in the world wide web, ultimately striving to be able to whisper answers and suggestions to any of our thoughts directly within our brains. God, Carr argues, has become the Great Programmer and the Universe is but the logical output of a computer.

Those concerned by privacy may be interested in Carr’s assertions that anonymous information and anonymised data can easily be overruled by inference automatically deduced through information culled from a small number of disparate sources. Those running businesses which rely on the internet may be interested in Carr’s observations on the fragility of the internet – as was exposed as recently as the start of this year by international sabotage in the Middle East, Iran and India. Those concerned with cultural understanding and appreciation of much international content on the web will be interested in Carr’s views on the inevitability of blandness. Those observing the polarity of US political commentary may be interested in Carr’s hypothesis on web newsfeeds and blogs which he infers from Thomas Schelling’s (an economist) experiments in 1971: these showed an intrinsic natural propensity towards racial segregation within America’s suburbs. Those concerned by skilled labour shortages in Ireland may be interested in Carr’s conjectures on how the computer industry worldwide is in fact destroying jobs, not creating them.

Perhaps having forcibly laid down some portentous predictions, Carr might have suggested some alleviating actions. For example Carr asserts that everyone in the YouTube economy is free to play, but only very few reap the rewards; the erosion of the middle class may well accelerate, as the divide widens between a relatively small group of extraordinarily wealthy people – the digital elite – and a very large set of people who face eroding fortunes; and humanity is left with a prospect which is far from utopian. If computerization is really different from those past technological revolutions which helped close wealth gaps, then a discussion of actions or policies which might ameliorate the future would be insightful: but Carr appears reluctant to offer his wisdom.

People like Carr may be skeptical that the Web will create a more bountiful culture and they are equally dubious that it will promote greater harmony and understanding: instead they believe that cultural impoverishment and social fragmentation are as likely outcomes. If this is the case, then what should or could be done to improve things ? Do we trust that humans browsing the web can extract balanced judgments ? Should we – and what right do “we” have anyway – care about such issues, and should we make such judgments ? Should society encourage web content to be apolitical ? Old-timers like this reviewer will recall that commercial promotion using the internet once was ruled unacceptable by the community. Should our search engines attempt to tag argument with counter-argument ? Is there an opportunity to use the Web to aggregate and bundle (as in the traditional media, including for example this newspaper) and thus present balanced views, rather than the Great Unbundling which Carr perceives in the Web ? Should search engines be more circumspect about inferring our personal preferences as to our preferred content, and thus risk presenting content contrary to our individual prejudices ? Is the concept of a responsible, “public-service” search engine, useful and conceivable ? Certainly there is scope for reasoned discussion on improving upon or even avoiding the various outcomes for the Web which Carr discusses and predicts – but perhaps Carr is saving this for his follow-on tome “The Big Switch 2”.

This – in part two – is a dark book. It is characterized by sometimes nebulous extrapolation of certain trends and selected observations to assert sensational outcomes for the future of the internet and the web. Extreme positions and incitement to fear may no doubt generate some attention on the international speaking circuit. A more balanced and mature treatment is possible and arguably more responsible if, admittedly and almost certainly, less lucrative.

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About chrisjhorn

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