on 22 February 2008
Nick Carr's publisher was kind enough to send me a copy of his new book, "The Big Switch: Rewiring the world, from Edison to Google". I have been reading the book on and off for the last few days. Overall, the The Big Switch is a very pleasant, thought provoking and easy read.
The book is essentially two books in one. In the "first" book, Carr discuss the move to "utility computing" (grid-based, aka cloud computing) and goes on to describe a number of historical analogies on how electricity utilities and grids were first introduced during the last century. The second "book" is made up of a series of essays on the social, moral and policy implications of our digital world. Though well researched, I found the first part rather boring.
With regards to utility computing, (Software virtualisation. Data Centre consolidation. IP connectivity. ITIL processes, hardware standardisation. Shared IT Services model). The idea sounds great and more and more enterprises are seriously starting to think about moving to this model for the future.
In the "second" book, (which I found very thought provoking) Carr, explores areas such as privacy, security and "market of one" opportunities and risks. He concludes that we are heading into a new era:
"In the years ahead, more and more of the information-processing tasks that we rely on, at home and at work, will be handled by big data centres located out on the Internet. The nature and economics of computing will change as dramatically as the nature and economics of mechanical power changed with the rise of electric utilities in the early years of the last century. The consequences for society - for the way we live, work, learn, communicate, entertain ourselves, and even think - promise to be equally profound. If the electric dynamo was the machine that fashioned twentieth century society - that made us who we are - the information dynamo is the machine that will fashion the new society of the twenty-first century".
In both of Carr's books, he treats Information Technology as a highly commoditised, yet essential service. The switch to Software as a Service (SaaS) model will have a profound effect on society and business, in the same way as cheap electricity had over a century ago. Carr argues that the switch to utility computing will shrink the workforce, lead to increasing income inequality, and destroy the middle class. This is fundamentally the thesis that he presents. However, Carr admits that it will take a couple of decades before businesses will be able to make the leap to this new cheap and ubitiquitous infrastructure based in the cloud.
"The Big Switch" is very well researched and extremely well written book. However, as was the case with Nick's last book, "Does IT Matter?", The Big Switch is designed with ideas to provoke the reader. Carr does not present any solutions to the above highlighted topics. However, his often controversial observations leave the reader with a large number of unanswered questions - This is of course where Nick Carr excels, encouraging debate amongst IT executives the world over.
I highly recommend getting a copy now that it is generally available.
on 17 July 2008
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?
This book looks at the way in which the provision of computing is moving away from our desktops to more remote locations which are accessed via the internet. In this day and age, that would be identified as the transition to cloud computing, and the notion that much of what we do (such as, for example, searching on Google or writing this review) is powered by compute resources which we don't know (or care) about has become pervasive. Written in 2008, when this was a comparatively new idea, this book draws the analogy between computing as a utility and the revolution which occurred when industry stopped generating its own power with steam engines and plugged into a shared electric grid. Carr notes how the economies of scale associated with the grid made it easier and cheaper for more factories and homes to connect to it and, in a bravura passage (pp 89-102) shows how modern society owes its shape to the far-reaching effects of the provision of cheap electric power in apparently unlimited quantities.
Having made this connection (with the implication that utility computing will occasion a revolution of similar magnitude), he goes on to look at aspects of the digital economy ranging from the types of jobs it creates (or, rather, doesn't) to the way in which consumers are able to unbundle their purchases (e.g. individual songs instead of albums, pages and stories instead of newspapers). He considers some of the effects on privacy - how the information that we volunteer about ourselves can be harvested for uses that we aren't aware of, including targeted marketing. In this context, he quotes (p206) an executive who brilliantly compares traditional and internet advertising, saying the former is like dropping bombs on cities (when the company can't be sure who gets hit or missed) whilst the latter is like making "lots of spearheads, and then [getting] people to impale themselves". Finally, he looks at the way in which our connection to the internet is turning it into a "thinking machine" (in the way, for example, we unconsciously help Google to optimize its searches).
This is all fascinating stuff, cleverly teased out by an skillful and intelligent author using an engaging style. He reaches a brilliant apogee at the end of the book with a meditation on the difference between the light of a candle and an electric bulb, which is used to shed light (hah!) on the nature of technological progress (p233): "As older generations die, they take with them their knowledge of what was lost when the new technology arrived, and only the sense of what was gained remains. It's in this way that progress covers its tracks, perpetually refreshing the illusion that where we are is where we were meant to be." Just perfect.
on 20 February 2010
In this book Nick Carr takes the reader through history by exploring the similarities between electrical power generation and computing. Through an uncritical and historical metaphor it imposes his ideas of how the computing industry will change and improve exactly as the power generation did more than a century ago. Carr started this argument in a previous book "Does IT Matter" published in 2003, where he controversially asserts that, at business level IT is so widespread and advanced that companies cannot compete anymore with each other, as they all have the same IT capacity.
The Big Switch is a very well written and interesting book. It is divided into two main parts. In the first part, Carr gives an historical analysis on the development of the electric power generation, from the in house production to the construction of power stations and the provision of electricity as a service. After providing the reader with this background knowledge; in the second part, through another historical analysis, but this time of the IT industry, he shows how the IT is evolving in such a similar way as the power generation. Arriving to the conclusion that IT will be soon provided only as a service, just like electricity.
Carr bases his thesis on the fact that during the industrial revolution of the 20th century, most of the factories had in house power generation systems and it did matter if you had a bigger generator than your competitors. Production was highly affected by the capability of the factories to produce their own electric power. Therefore, having better and more powerful electrical generators would have given you an advantage against competitors. At this time, early power plants arrived bringing with them cheaper and more efficient electricity for everyone; giving the opportunity to all those who wanted to open a factory, but could not afford a power generator. Accordingly, when IT started to spread across businesses and companies it mattered about having a faster and more reliable system than your competitors. Many of the big firms of the past failed to keep up with the time just because their IT infrastructures were not as organised and efficient as the ones of their competitors. Nowadays, however, we have reached a point of stability and IT does not make anymore the difference. All the big companies are using the same technologies. Obviously there are different systems around, but still the gap between big companies has been levelled out and we are now in a time where a new change will come soon. Just like the way it happened with the power generation.
Right, Carr's thesis does make sense, so far. Especially, if written in the way that he does in this book. There are not many technology journalist and writers as talented as him out there. However, throughout the book there are many incongruences that are not analysed or even taken into account. He does not take in consideration any other alternative. This gives the reader the only option to believe that what he is saying is right without even arguing it. It has to be said that many of his arguments are undoubtedly true thus his predictions of the future are probably correct. Yet, many of them are wrong, too.
First of all, the metaphor between power generation and computing is misleading and at times erroneous. If looked at in more detail, this analogy does not match as precisely as the author depicts it. Perhaps, if we consider that IT can be provided in three different ways, then a more suitable analogy would be the music industry evolution. At first, music was only available through concerts and live shows at specific times and places, just like early mainframes. Then the phonograph changed everything and music became playable anytime and anywhere we wanted, just like personal computers. Finally, with the invention of the radio, music became a service, just like web applications (or cloud computing). As far as we are all concerned, today music can still be delivered in any of those three formats and very likely this will happen with computing. In other words, we will carry on having people developing their own applications, using local applications and using software as a service.
Carr states that centralised power generation is much more efficient than in house power generation. This unfortunately is not entirely true, centralised production of electricity is just cheaper and cleaner. Carr maybe didn't consider that about 50% of the energy produced in all the power stations around the world is lost on the network, before it even gets to our homes and in the event of a blackout we are left with none at all. What if, as Carr predicts, we transfer all our knowledge and information into the cloud and one day there is a fault in the cloud? The consequences are probably unimaginable. It is obvious that the cloud is the direction that we have to point to, but discarding any other option is almost certainly a hazard.
Another uncritical assertion given by Carr is that of examples of successful companies that have used the cloud to support their business models. What about the other companies? Do we all need to go into the cloud to be successful? What disadvantages are there to relying on the cloud?
Also, throughout the entire book Carr tries to coin the new term "world wide computer" this is superfluous and unnecessary. Although, the Internet is changing there is no need to define with a new term what we already know.
Concluding, The Big Switch is a highly recommended book to everybody interested in technology. The first part is a fascinating read about how it all started including in a story like format the beginning of the electricity era. In the second part, however a good level of scepticism and critical thinking will help create a better image of what has happened, what's happening and what will happen to IT in the very near future.
on 23 February 2009
This book was recommended to me by a colleague.
There are some interesting and thought provoking ideas within. But, for me it's damaged by the unnecessary comparisons made with the 20th Century's emerging power generation industry.
I don't know anyone in business that isn't aware that as markets mature products and services become increasingly commoditised, or is unable to recognise the potential of computing as a service (let's face it you could time-share mainframes back in the 1970s).
Surely, the driving force behind IT has always been the power it offers for innovation? And you can be a whole lot more innovative with a $300 computer in your garage than an Ethernet connection and a subscription to AWS.
A good introduction to the Cloud, but lacking the criticism required to make it a seminal tome.
on 14 January 2015
A few decent points, but nowadays this book seems very sensational and bears no more relevance than those 1960s poets in San Francisco who raved on about society becoming fused into a single being through the internet.
Carr does not write in technical terms, and at times it shows that his knowledge is limited, sometimes narrowly so. For instance, inciting that computerisation is not creating a broad new class of jobs "to take the place of those it destroys" is nonsense. Computerisation has opened up many new jobs, it is just that people are less educated to perform these new jobs, and must retrain, like any other job. I understand this is not meant to be a technical book, but he seems reckless to put forward his misjudgements.
He often makes comparisons/points when none are needed - e.g. the enslaving change in the role of housewives through electrification, the Mustang car fan making a blog, and Schelling's experiment with black and white markers to indicate the inevitability of segregation.
Indeed, the internet is allowing the development of complex pseudo-AI entities such as the Google search engine, but the internet is not the computer itself. Saying this would be like saying a simple LED circuit has the capacity to become self-aware. Nonsense.
on 17 February 2014
And a serious should-read for everybody else. Its predictions have stood up well (the first edition was published just after the arrival of the Kindle and before the iPxxx phenomenon took off) while an additional chapter brings it up to date. You may not buy into its wilder predictions in the later chapters (I don't think I do), but if so you would do well to think about why you do not.
When it was first written, the Cloud was mostly marketing hot air, but that has now seriously changed and this book gives you a very sound basis for trying to figure out where it is all going and how it may affect you and your business.
on 3 March 2012
Interesting book that demonstrates conclusively that business and personal systems must continue to move into cloud.
Richard Carr's observations about the step change increase in potential that the internet provides for the companies and governments to control people is an important challenge to the widely held view that the internet is liberating customers and citizens.
The chapter on iGod is also a thought provoking.... are we becoming a pancake people?
on 14 January 2012
This book could be written in one sentence. "It's not about what computer you have, it's about how it's connected."
Very random walk about the economics of the internet, giving dull examples of websites that use cloud - never really summarises it is what he's saying nor does he make a cogent argument. It's just a description of the internet plus some history in the front to fill out the page count. Really not very interesting, especially if you have even a remotely technical background.
A dash it off quick piece of journalistic polemic - Carrs short book (about 200 pages of cheaply printed content) has plenty of interesting things to say about the development of IT into a commoditised product, and the parallels with the development of electricity generation.
Carr is clearly excited by the possibilities of `The Cloud' - or the `World Wide Computer' as he insists on repeatedly calling it.
However, he overeggs the parallel with Edison and doesn't seem to appreciate that supplying an IT service is potentially more complex than supplying electricity. In fact like many evangelists he seems blind to any of the Clouds potential flaws, reliability, control, security etc. While some of his comments about the client server model of delivery just demonstrate how little he understands it and will irrite anyone who know a bit about IT.
But he does have some interesting things to say on the web as an instrument of freedom versus control.
Overall even at 200 pages this feels a bit stretched and could probably be condensed into 100. But worth a read none the less.