Book Review: Carr’s The Big Switch
After his first bestseller “Does IT Matter?” Nicholas Carr wrote another well written book called “The Big Switch”. For those who never heard of Nicholas Carr: he is a US Internet critic whose weblogs and books are trying to undermine the sweeping utopianism of Web 2.0. His work mainly focuses on the role of information technologies and how these technologies are drastically changing our lives. Carr elegantly weaves historical and contemporary developments together into highly witty storylines.
The Big Switch is divided into two parts. The first part (called: One Machine) compares the commercialization and development of the ‘electric grid’ to our contemporary networked society. In the second part (called: Living in the Cloud) he sketches several implications of ‘living in the cloud’. This ‘living in the cloud’ refers to the universal computing grid (or ‘World Wide Computer’ as Carr would like to call it) that we’ve developed over the last few years.
By taking the reader back to the birth and evolution of the electricity industry, Carr tries to create an analogy between the past and the future. He concentrates on how electricity went from in-house to mass production and what the socio-economic consequences of this industrial revolution were. By drawing parallels between then and now, Carr argues that we’re on the verge of a ‘new’ socio-economic revolution with the advent of the World Wide Computer. According to Carr Web 2.0 is an instrument that controls instead of emancipates and liberates us. Because of the “bundling of the world’s computing into a single network” information will be placed into the hands of corporations and governments which would widen and accelerate the digital divide. Carr also addresses that humans will undergo a biological transformation through the extensive use of the World Wide Computer. He argues:
“The medium is not the message. The medium is the mind. It shapes what we see and how we see it […] The most revolutionary consequence of the expansion of the Internet’s power, scope and usefulness may not be that computers will start to think like us but that we will come to think like computers […] The artificial intelligence we’re creating may turn out to be our own.” (Carr, 228-229)
Even though Carr is right by pointing out the importance of the reciprocal relationship between humans and technology and its probable negative outcome, yet his reasoning could be questioned. Firstly, because he mainly based his arguments on the ‘electricity = computing’ analogy. One could question if electricity and computing could be considered as ‘stand-alone’ or ‘singular’ developments, instead of part of the industrial revolution. When electricity and computing are both part of the same ‘revolution’, then it could be argued that it’s a continuing process rather than two separate revolutions.
Another short-coming is that he’s solely focussing on the American consequences of the ‘electric grid’ and American computing. Carr seems to describe our global networked culture in term of the ‘American way’; this could lead to a holistic view of our contemporary society. I won’t deny the fact that Silicon Valley had a major influence in how our contemporary information network is build and used, but it discharges other non-American influences and could lead to reductionism.
Although Carr describes how the World Wide Computer is generally changing our way of life, he doesn’t zoom-in on personal implications. For example, how our concept of identity and self will change, or how the reciprocal relationship between human and computer will be reformulated. It seems as if the implications Carr is talking about are more complex than he states in this book and would require more in-depth research.
Considering these minor defaults, The Big Switch is still a must-read for anyone who had enough of IT-evangelism and would like to know more about IT’s dark side. Carr’s book gives a sweeping view on the ‘dirty’ world of information technologies.
- Carr, N. The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2008.