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The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google

Reviewed by Paul W. Taylor, chief strategy officer, Center for Digital Government  

by / February 22, 2008

Nick Carr has written a meditation on the loss of the old when confronted by the new, the loss of the incumbents' advantage when history shifts under them, the loss of data control to third parties, and the loss of sovereignty to institutions and other actors we can't control.

It might be unexpected from the "IT Doesn't Matter guy," a self-deprecating reference to the Harvard Business Review article that made him (in)famous a few years ago. Carr's newest book has a similarly incongruous title, The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google.

Carr builds on an argument familiar in his previous books - IT was necessary but didn't confer competitive advantage. In The Big Switch, Carr argues organizations will inevitably abandon data centers, PCs and most locally installed software for cheap, utility-supplied computing.

In arguing for utility computing, Carr draws heavily on a detailed analogy: the electrical utilities that changed how the world worked a century ago. Carr's Thomas Friedman-style historical review of the profound effect of cheap electricity on society is the heart of the book's first half.

The historical romp helps to set up the darker half of his thesis that Thomas Edison was wrong about how electrical utilities would develop, and he couldn't see the myriad uses of electricity if it was stable, reliable and economical. He also tweaks Microsoft for being wrong (and late) in a chapter called "Goodbye Mr. Gates", although Dell, Oracle and SAP get briefer, but no kinder, notices.

Carr points to and Google as exemplars of utility computing, but he also worries Google could unwittingly violate its founding premise of not doing evil. In a curious contradiction that the book never reconciles, Carr repeats the widespread view of technological neutrality: "Technology is amoral, and inventions are routinely deployed in ways their creators neither intend nor sanction." Yet, he later reveals a strong technological determinism, warning, "It should come as no surprise, then, that most of the major advances in computing and networking ... have been spurred not by a desire to liberate the masses but by the need for greater control on the part of commercial and governmental bureaucrats."

There's a message for the Internet hopefuls: We're wrong too. "Two of the hopes most dear to the Internet optimists - that the Web will create a more bountiful culture and that it will promote greater harmony and understanding - should be treated with skepticism. Cultural impoverishment and social fragmentation seem equally likely outcomes."

Carr's dystopian homily fits the spirit of this moment, characterized by moribund politics, uncertain economics and lost national confidence. It would be too easy to say the book's lessons are that government shouldn't build data centers and that its bureaucracies shouldn't be trusted. Carr sees the threat in larger existential terms putting our societies and souls at risk. He suggests the greatest loss will be individual autonomy as we are conformed to the preferences of the utility-powered "World Wide Computer."

"The full power and consequence of a new technology are unleashed only when those who have grown up with it become adults and begin to push their outdated parents to the margins," Carr writes. "As the 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."

Unfortunately Carr's sweeping narrative is less about redressing this loss, or resisting its casual forces than ultimately being resigned to it. 

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Paul W. Taylor Contributing Writer

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the editor-at-large of Governing magazine. He also serves as the chief content officer of e.Republic, Governing’s parent organization, as well as senior advisor to the Governing Institute. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO and chief of staff of the state Information Services Board (ISB). Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet start-ups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the non-profit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C.

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