Nicholas Carr first rose to prominence with his article and subsequent book entitled “Does IT Matter?” in which he questioned whether internal IT systems provide companies with a true source of competitive advantage.
In The Big Switch, Carr further builds on that theme, arguing that just as companies in the early twentieth century ditched their own power plants to hook into the emerging electricity distribution grid, so too will today’s corporations eventually junk their internal data processing and computing systems and switch to a “utility computing” model that draws on massive, industrial scale information processing resources available through the Internet or, as he calls it, the World Wide Computer.
This in itself is not a particularly new idea; in fact, the concept of “Client/Server” computing has been around for a long time. But it is only in recent years that it has started to become a reality thanks to the growing proliferation of high-speed broadband links, the build-out of massive server farms, and the rapid emergence of web-based services and apps.
Carr does a very good job of describing this trend and making it easy to understand with his electricity grid analogy. Unfortunately, however, when it comes to analyzing its implications, he too quickly descends into a dystopian lament of the negative effects that this switch may have on our culture, our society, and the way we do business.
For example, Carr readily points to the negative impact that the rise of the Internet has had on the newspaper and media business in the US, yet he makes no mention at all of how it has enabled the creation of job opportunities and in some cases entire industries in emerging countries such as India and China. Neither does he mention how supply chain and manufacturing efficiencies enabled by computerization and the Internet have kept prices down for consumers and contributed to the fastest period of world economic growth in human history. Surely he should look at his concept of a World Wide Computer from a global perspective rather than parroting the concerns of a self-selected rich-world media and cultural elite that have been raised before in books such as The Cult of the Amateur.
Carr is on much safer ground when he describes the compromises we are making to our privacy as we move greater portions of our lives online and the growing risk of abuse by governments, corporations, and cyber criminals, but unfortunately he doesn’t offer any suggestions on how to combat this.
Indeed, this latter point neatly encapsulates one of the main problems with the book. Carr is excellent at banging the drums of gloom and doom, but he doesn’t have any answers to the issues he identifies.