Clearly, Nicholas Carr disapproves of much of the culture in which I’ve immersed myself and which I nearly-wholly embrace, to which I would apply labels such as “online” or “Web” or “Internet” or “Twenty-first century”. (Carr and I have written back and forth already on the generalities.) So it would be reasonable to suspect me of bias in writing about his recent The Big Switch—Rewiring the world, from Edison to Google. And indeed, I do think that several of its key arguments are, well, wrong. But it’s a good book anyhow; well written and extremely apposite.
Outline · The book embeds three themes, quite loosely intertwined. First, on the Really Big Analogy between Electricity and Information Technology. Second, on whether this Internet thingie is a Really Good Idea or a Really Bad Idea. Third, on whether the Net is an Emergent Artificial Intelligence, and if so whether We Ought To Be Scared.
The first is the most interesting. Jonathan Schwartz has riffed at length on this theme as well, and the analogies between the electrical industry back then and IT today are pretty compelling. My disappointment here is that Carr seems to have stopped before getting to the end of the argument. Nobody in, say, a small manufacturing business is going to write their own payroll system. On the other hand, nobody in the financial industry is going to outsource all their modeling and risk work to someone else’s software and infrastructure. The interesting question is, where’s the dividing line, what is the underlying pattern? What decision procedure should a manager follow to address the own-or-outsource question? Planning a sequel, Prof. Carr?
Emancipation or Control? · The book has two halves: the second, Living in the Cloud, opens with several chapters outlining the surprising reach of the Net and Web in 2008. This would contain no surprises for ongoing readers, but is well-presented and likely useful for a general audience.
Then the fun starts, as Carr considers whether the Net embodies “technologies of emancipation” or “technologies of control”. His conclusion, unsurprisingly, is that it’s about control. The argument is worth reading but I found it entirely unconvincing. The Internet is about people and that’s all it’s about. People’s behavior is sometimes noble and sometimes shitty, and the Internet doesn’t change that. Given the chance to accrue power, individuals and groups will usually take it. When they misuse it, other individuals and groups will try to break that power. Sometimes they’ll succeed and sometimes they won’t. There’ll be tyrannies and collectives and complacency and insurgencies and wealth and poverty wherever there are people, and I just don’t see how the Net makes any qualitative difference.
Hold on... I think what we have here is Prof. Carr predicting a sea-change and me saying “Nah, nothing really new.” Good.
Intelligence? · The closing section considers whether the Net constitutes an emergent intelligence. It’s pretty disappointing; Carr obviously hasn’t researched the miserable decades-long failure of the Artificial Intelligence project. He even uncritically relays the exciting news from some AI lab: the researchers have “already succeeded in creating a software program that can, at a very basic level, ‘read’ sentences on Web pages and extract meaning from them—without requiring any tags from programmers.” Wow! Stop the presses! Someone call Doug Lenat!
I’ve written about this before, but the core point is worth re-emphasizing: If we actually understood what intelligence was and how it worked, we could maybe replicate it. We don’t, so we can’t. (I suspect that someday we will; I’m not a victim of the Chinese-Room illusion).
Anyhow, it seems that I’ve been grumbling and grouching here, mostly. But to some degree that’s a compliment: if I weren’t engaged by the narrative I wouldn’t have taken the time to go through it, take notes, and write this. I think that most people who enjoy ongoing would enjoy reading The Big Switch.
And the epilogue, Flame and Filament, is a perfect little two-page jewel: startling, clear-eyed, and beautifully written; perhaps itself worth the price of the whole book. I’m going to quote the last sentence: “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.” Which is true even if you lose the “were”.