Monday, April 21, 2008

The Big Switch Rewiring the World From Edison to Google-- Nicholas Carr-- Essay

The Big Switch Rewiring the World From Edison to Google by Nicholas Carr is a book about the change from small scale computing to utility scale comping. It is a book which I cannot be neutral about. There is a lot said in here which will affect my profession and my future in surprising ways. I think the book is eye opening. So, I am going to include a lot of my experiences with what is being written in this book.

Nicholas Carr compares the transformation of electricity from small power plants to large scale centralized power plants to what is happening with computing today. He posits that we are moving from individual scale computers to large utility scale data centers and application service providers. He claims it is easier and cheaper to centralize computer applications into offsite management.

For example, I find many of Yahoo's services to be superior to using my home computer. I sometimes backup files on . I also keep a separate list of my favorite online sites on . These are both remote functions.

I have always wondered why I could not simply log into an application service provider and do all the work I needed from anywhere. Google has recently created a suite of business applications called Google Apps. For $50 per person per year, you can get the advertisement free version of business applications to use to run a business. This is run from Google's giant data centers.

There are other utility scale computer companies that manage programming remotely for much cheaper than having an in house service;, Savvis, Amazon S3 Computer services, and Savvis. Microsoft is preparing to virtualize its services and programs.

This is not necessarily a good thing for the middle class. As services move from in house technology departments to outsourced IT data centers, less people are required to do the same job. Not only are less people required. These centers can be built in a wide variety of places around the world. This creates shrinkage in the amount of knowledge jobs available. I have seen this happening in the profession of librarianship in every sector, academic, public, school, and special libraries.

Also the larger centralized data centers have more computing power and a greater variety of programming power than most in house technology departments. These data centers can provide services like Flickr, Blogger, Youtube, Wordpress, and other programs which can be used with minimal computer skills. It is very easy to join "the horde" of users that have become invested in these services. For example, I am a member of Entrecard, which on closer inspection uses Amazon S3 partially, a service which provides virtual computing.

One of the current features of "the horde" as it is sometimes called is that entrepreneurs can tap the horde to create free wealth for them. They are not paying us for our labor in creating blogs, posting amateur photographs, or sharing music. For example, Chad Hurley and Steve Chen sold Youtube to Google for $1.65 billion. Youtube employed sixty people. It is a situation where those producers who succeed get a massive jackpot.

Because the labor is free, however, it hollows out the traditional middle class jobs. The reward which people are getting is one of status, or hits on a computer screen. There is little money attached to this status. For example if someone creates a service where thousands of people try to answer a question for free, it challenges my job. This is happening with journalism a lot. Someone reports an event as it is happening on their blog and it appears on the news. The bloggers often are not being paid for this.

Wikipedia is a classic example of this. The majority of people who provide information to Wikipedia are volunteers. Yet, it has provided a direct challenge to the encyclopedia companies. There are articles which claim that Wikipedia is as accurate as the Encyclopedia Britannica. The unrealized problem is one where Wikipedia is replacing more than one paid for service.

At the same time this concentration of wealth is happening for the "producers", the amount of jobs in technology are shrinking. People cannot rely on a "gift economy" or an economy based on popularity to live. There is a real divorce from reality in how people are promised lots of money from advertising on their blog, or selling affiliate nick nacks. It simply does not happen most of the time. Problogger said it beautifully, it takes 10,000 hits a day to make approximately $50,000 a year if you use advertising and affiliate programs on your blog.

The author calls this phenomenon, The WWC, the worldwide computer. It is a much better name than Web 2.0 which means essentially nothing in my book. I think this phenomenon creates too much power for business and government. Instead of "Big brother is watching you," we are getting "Mega-marketer is selling you." He gives the excellent example of "personalization" where companies collect your information so they can make their product more suitable for you.

My opinions are not necessarily the same as the authors. However, many of the things he says in this book really hit a nerve with me. It helped explain a lot of the things which are happening with computers today. The idea of computing as a utility is an interesting one. The authors promotional site for the book is at


NathanKP said...

This sounds like an interesting book that I may want to read.

NathanKP - Inkweaver Review

Book Calendar said...

Please do read it. I found it on another blog, Joe Wikert's Publishing 2020 blog. I often find interesting books to read on blogs that are not reviewed in the mainstream literature.