Book Review: Nicholas Carr’s “The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, From Edison to Google”
Apparently, my comment on TechCrunch was interesting enough for them to send me a copy of Nicholas Carr's The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, From Edison to Google, so I thought I'd take a break from code samples and give it a brief review.
Carr's is thesis is very interesting. In the early 20th century, electricity went from being produced in-house by each company that needed it to being mass produced and made available on a power grid which companies could tap into. This revolution made changes in every facet of life from business to education to medicine to the architecture of living spaces. In the 21st century, Carr argues that a similar revolution is happening with computing and information technology. [more]Today, companies still build their own IT infrastructure and buy individual computers, but the internet is beginning to form a sort of computing grid which companies can tap into just like they do today with electricity. A current example of this is Amazon's various services like S3 for data storage and EC2 for computing power.
The book is very fun to read, especially if you like both technology and "the story behind the story." In the first half of the book, Carr weaves the tale of electricity's rise and the birth of the information technology industry. Then, in the second half, he discusses some of the implications of the "programmable internet." I would definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys technology and likes a good story.
While I really enjoyed the story Carr tells and some of the things he thinks will happen in the future, what was interesting to me was that he never really asks the question: Is this stuff "good" for us? Carr does talk a little bit about business level concerns and how the IT industry will be affected by these changes. He does not, however, engage in questions about how the changes he describes in the book will affect the individual person and what it means to be human. This unquestioning attitude is exactly what Neil Postman wrote about in his book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology in which he asked talks about how our culture today tends to immediately adopt technology without thinking through its implications.
For example, in the final chapter of the book, entitled "iGod," Carr discusses how Google eventually hopes to build a system in which all the world's information plugs directly into our brains. Many of their "products" are just steps to this end. For example, 800-GOOG-411 is an experiment in voice recognition. Carr quotes Google engineers saying that Google Books is not really about displaying books for humans to read, but about making a better Artificial Intelligence that can understand the content of the books. Eventually this will help create a vast Intelligence (iGod?) that people can hook directly to their brains. Carr discusses the cybernetic enhancement this would require (for more, the Transhumanism essay in Everyday Theology by Vanhoozer's student, Matthew Eppinette: excerpt), Yet, he only mentions two people who question whether this is a good idea. (1) Bill Gates "I'm happy to have the computer over there and I'm over here" and (2) Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber, "People won't be able to turn the machines off, because they will be so dependent on them that turning them off would amount to suicide")! Everyone else seems to see this as a Utopia of sorts.
I work in the technology field and I love to try new toys and learn new programming languages, so I'm definitely not against technology by any means. But I do think that people need to begin considering how different technologies will affect them before they buy (into) them. For example, many people are beginning to notice that since we have all been placing a lot of information in our cell phones, PDAs, and online calendars, our memories seem to be becoming weaker. We don't commit to memory what we can just search for over and over (see Why Google Is Making Us Dumber). It might seem helpful to not have to remember a bunch of phone numbers, but this has the unintended consequence of making our memories generally weaker. My wife and I have also noticed that we tend to forget major events or things we've done together unless we have pictures of it. On one hand, this might be a net gain since I will be able to more vividly relive events if I ever get Alzheimer's. But on the other hand its seems that that my concept of being human has been changed such that I am dependent on a digital camera to experience the past.
This seems to correspond with what the observations of philosopher of technology, Marshall McLuhan, who said that "every innovation is an amputation." When you invent the wheel, your legs become weaker. When you invent the amplifier, your voice becomes weaker. It seems that when we invent online information storage, our memories become weaker. Of course, wheels, amplifiers, and online storage are not evil things – in fact they have the potential to be really good things. The argument I just made about cameras could have been made about a keeping a paper journal a century ago. But it is still important to think through how such technologies change us as people, and consider if certain technologies should be handled more carefully and thoughtfully.
Industries and companies certainly won't do this thinking for anyone. Businesses are not terribly interested in what's "good" for people, but what people will buy (and buy lots of). Perhaps it isn't Carr's place either to do such thinking for us, but his book leaves quite a bit open for discussion. I for one am personally motivated to figure out ways to keep more of my life/data in me instead of in someone else's computer. (DataPortability notwithstanding