Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Book Review: The Big Switch


I just finished reading The Big Switch, Nicholas Carr's description of the rise of cloud computing. The thesis is simple: computing is becoming a utility, just like electricity. The book comes in three parts: historical comparison, policy implications, and social implications

The first part of the book is great. It sticks to the thesis, going back and forth between the early 20th century and the early 21st to make the comparison between electricity and computing as utilities. Carr's narration of the technological, business, and social changes that attended the early twentieth century rise of the electrical grid in the U.S. are particularly interesting. Analytically insightful and engagingly written, the first half of the book is a must-read.

The second part of the book is pretty good too. Carr raises a selection of thorny security and legal issues around the use and maintenance of the Internet. Most of these are not new (privacy, spam, phishing, cybersecurity, etc.), but Carr does a good job laying out the important facts. No solutions -- but that would be a lot to ask.

The last portion of the book, you can skip. Here Carr abandons his thesis and turns his back on history to wander into a dystopian tirade. Stepping into the role of an Emersonian prophet of doom, he laments the flattening loss of human spirit in a world dominated by the World Wide Computer. He predicts that computing will destroy our social relationships, take over our bodies, and weaken and replace our minds. It's pretty Matrix-esque, actually. And I don't buy it.

This section annoyed me so much ("The rest of the book was amazing, and then he coughs up this kind of drivel?") that I can't let it go without a fight. Carr's half-baked mantra is "the Internet is a medium of control." Implication: control is antithetical to freedom; therefore, the Internet is decreasing human freedom. But his use of the word "control" is slippery to the point of silliness.

Examples:
pg 192: "The process of control itself has two thrusts. It involves measurement ... and two-way communication."

pg 195: "The entire history of automated data processing ... is best understood as a part of [an] ongoing process of reestablishing and maintaining control."

pg 198: "Programming, after all, is nothing if not a method of control."

We're supposed to believe that measurement, communication, data-processing, and computer programming equals a loss of human freedom? Again, I don't buy it.

Most of Carr's objections to interconnectedness through computing could also be raised against interconnectedness through language: it shapes thought, alters behavior, complicates relationships, and subjects people to new stresses. All true. But language also allows greater empathy, creative expression, coordination, communication, collaboration, and cooperation -- the same kinds of benefits we see on the Internet. All told, I think most people will agree that language is more liberating than stifling. I'm still convinced that the same is true of the Internet.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

人生有些波折,才能有些成長,所以不論順逆,凡是成長、成功的助緣,都應該心存感激。 ..................................................