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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Thought provoking and disturbing, 17 July 2008
This review is from: The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google (Hardcover)
The Big Switch is a book about the future of computing but it begins in the past with the production of electricity. We are given a history of how technology changed the way in which humanity manipulates matter, and how this drove us to need to handle information in ever more sophisticated ways. This is an extremely interesting story and Carr does a good job of showing how these changes affected society.

This history is interesting in its own right but Carr's reasons for going into it are to shed light on our present. The analogy is made between the change in businesses in the past being responsible for generating their own power to outside companies doing it for them, and today's world, where we increasingly don't need to think about maintaining our own software and computing systems. Today we very rarely need to think about IT, often doing much of our computing online and never needing to maintain the software ourselves. More and more this is done by outside agencies, the most obvious of which is Google.

While history is a good way to analyse our present times, Carr understands that no historical analogy is perfect. The similarities between the revolution in providing power and the revolution in computing are very interesting but so are the differences. This is what Carr focuses on in the second half of his book. His thoughts on the way the Internet is changing the world both socially and economically, are well contrasted to the way electricity revolutionised our lives. He makes the point that in some ways new technology and change is for the better, while in others it is for the worse.

I found this second half to be very thought provoking and disturbing at times. We are often given to understand that the Internet is a force for freedom. Most people see the World Wide Web as empowering individuals and encouraging communication between them, creating greater harmony and understanding. Carr turns this on its head and instead shows us a world where we are increasingly spied upon and manipulated.

Carr, like many observers of technology, seems to see the march forward into a time when we are all connected together as inevitable. Indeed in some ways he shows that we are already living in this era. I found his thoughts to be a good counterpoint to the extremely optimistic views of someone like Ray Kurzweil for example. Like Kurzweil however I think that Carr is telling us that we have little conscious control as individuals over this progress. Step by step we will slowly accept what happens to us as the normal course of events. Sometimes this will be to our advantage and sometimes not.

Overall I think this is a very interesting book. There wasn't really anything about the GNR revolution (Genetics, Nanotechnology and Robotics) or the idea of the Singularity, which I think are essential topics. Maybe these are subjects for a subsequent edition. Nevertheless the book is timely and perceptive. At times I found what Carr had to say echoing my own thoughts. At one very eerie point I realised when he explained it is often easier to google something than to remember it for yourself, I had had exactly the same discussion with a colleague the very same day. Now Google is supplementing my memory am I already irretrievably a node of the world computer?
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