Book Review – The Big Switch by Nicholas Carr

Nicholas Carr likes to poke a stick at the IT world. His 2003 Harvard Business Review article ‘IT doesn’t matter’ and the subsequent book created a storm by arguing that the increased commoditisation of IT meant it was no longer in a position to offer sustainable competitive advantage for corporate users.

Carr’s new canvas is wider and even more provocative. It sees the World Wide Web as evolving into the World Wide Computer – the collective power of the world’s IT infrastructure, where applications are executed in ‘the cloud’ and the intelligence can be used just as easily to control individuals as enhance their lives.

The Big Switch is actually two distinct books. It opens with a set of familiar Carr arguments: that for the past 50 years, businesses that wanted to take advantage of IT have had no choice but to be in the business of data processing themselves, whatever their main business might be.

But Carr argues that all that is going to change fast: “Companies are beginning to dismantle their private computing systems and tap into the rich services delivered over the Internet. Computing is turning into a utility.”

Getting off the treadmill

This will liberate corporate IT from a treadmill of investment. “Using [such] services, a company can run a web site or a corporate software application, or even operate an entire Internet business, without having to invest in any server computers, storage systems or associated software,” he writes.

To help the reader make that mental leap, Carr provides a historical parallel: the invention and growth of electricity generation at the end of the 19th century, and its eventual development into a utility early in the 20th century.

Carr’s previous argument on the commoditisation of IT raised the ire of IT executives, who thought it failed to appreciate the constant renewal of technology and its ability to deliver competitive edge and differentiation. There will be similar objections here – that IT is not a one-dimensional utility like electricity or gas; it is an extension of human endeavour and interaction, and so can often be used more effectively and in unlimited creative ways when under an organisation’s own control.

In the second, more original, part of the book Carr seems to suggest just that: “The World Wide Computer [has] enormous flexibility in tailoring its workings for our particular needs. We can vary the mix of components – those supplied by utilities and those supplied locally – according to the task we want to accomplish.”

One of the key decisions for corporate IT departments at this point, he says, is about what to hold onto and what to let go. In the long term, he argues, the IT department is unlikely to survive, at least not in its familiar form. It will have little left to do once the bulk of business computing sifts out of private data centres and into ‘the cloud’.

Inherent dangers

While charting that evolution, he also observes the dangers of the shift to the World Wide Computer. There is also a serious prospect, he warns, that the visibility of behaviour afforded by the web will provide governments and commercial organisations with the ability to control and manipulate individuals.

To illustrate the point he quotes Rishad Tobaccowala, a top executive with international ad agency Publicis. He compared traditional advertising with dropping bombs on cities – a company cannot be sure who it hits and who it misses. But with Internet ads, companies can “make lots of spearheads and then get people to impale themselves.”

Every time a user reads a page of text, clicks on a link, watches a video or puts something in the shopping cart, they are filling in a “form for the record”, writes Carr. While that may sounds a little paranoid, there is enough evidence to suggest that the World Wide Computer has huge potential as a control technology – if we simply let it.

Carr concludes by moving to the next evolutionary step. In a chapter entitled ‘iGod’, he describes how Google is just the beginning of the meshing of Internet intelligence with human intelligence. “The World Wide Computer will become immeasurably smarter. The transfer of our intelligence into the machine will happen, whether or not we allow chips or sockets to be embedded in our skulls,” he postulates. And that thinking is catching on. He quotes author Kevin Kelly as saying, “In 2015, many people when divorced from the Machine, won’t feel like themselves – as if they’d had a lobotomy. We already find it easier to Google something than to remember it for ourselves.”

As always, Carr stimulates, provokes and entertains superbly.

David Cliff

David Cliff is managing director of Houghton le Spring-based Gedanken, a company specialising in coaching-based support and personal development. Cliff is an experienced trainer, manager and therapist,...

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