Monday, December 03, 2007

Review of Carr's The Big Switch

Nicholas Carr has written an excellent book, The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google,* which will be released on Jan. 7, 2008. The grand theme is how the world will change due to the ever-more-pervasive presence of computers. Under that grand theme, the book is then divided into two main parts.

In the first half of the book, Carr contends that the information technology departments of large businesses are about to become obsolete, as are large software companies like Microsoft (one chapter title: "Goodbye, Mr. Gates" -- I wonder how many readers will be aware of the allusion . . .). This is because computers are about to undergo the same transformation that happened with electricity a hundred years ago, an interesting story that Carr recounts. Whereas lots of individual firms used to produce their own electricity, they stopped doing so as soon as it became easier for electric companies to transmit power over longer distances. After all, if you're trying to make clothing or cars, why bother being an electric company unto yourself as well? The same thing is already happening as to computers, both hardware and software. It's becoming more feasible for relatively centralized companies to offer computer services to multiple other companies, which will eventually see that it's not worth the trouble to maintain their own set of hard drives, software, etc. In Carr's words, "Much of the traditional hardware business would simply disappear." (p. 79).

One warning that Carr makes, however, is that while the transformation of electricity into a centralized utility encouraged the production of many other things that depend on electricity (hence making possible the rise of the American middle class), the transformation of computers into a utility may not have the same effect. In fact, it may be more likely to exacerbate the "winner-take-all" trend of growing inequality. YouTube and Flickr are good examples discussed here: The creators of those services became enormously wealthy, but most of the actual material was supplied for free by hobbyists (who, needless to say, did not become wealthy). As Carr says, "the World Wide Computer provides an incredibly efficient mechanism for harvesting the economic value of the labor provided by the very many and concentrating it in the hands of the very few." (p. 143).

* * *

The second half of Carr's book is about the way that computers are used, and how this will transform society. One good example: Because of computers, intellectual content is more and more offered on an unbundled basis. (An earlier blog post by Carr touched on this topic.)

For example, you don't have to buy cable; instead, you can download individual TV shows (that's what I do). You don't have to subscribe to an entire newspaper to get the news; you can read individual articles that show up on blogs or Google (and advertisers are more and more able to target their advertising only to those articles that are popular). You don't have to buy full albums; you can buy individual songs on ITunes.

The crucial point is that when unbundling becomes more common, cross-subsidization must go down. The sports pages (popular) are not as likely to be cross-subsidizing the international reporter stationed in Zimbabwe (not popular). As a result, mainstream outlets are going to have a harder time paying for anything that doesn't have broad popularity and that doesn't specifically draw in advertisers on its own -- including international news or niche interests. As Carr says, "When bundled into a print edition, hard journalism can add considerably to the overall value of a newspaper. . . . Online, however, most hard journalism becomes difficult to justify economically. Getting a freelance writer to dash off a review of high-definition television sets -- or, better yet, getting readers to contribute their own reviews for free -- would produce much more attractive returns." (p. 155).

In other words, Carr is making the opposite of Chris Anderson's "Long Tail" argument. Or rather, he's showing where Anderson's argument doesn't apply. Anderson has a point when he says that companies like Amazon or Netflix can make a lot of money from the "long tail" of products, in which the sheer number of not-individually-popular books or movies can aggregate to large sales. But it's hard to see how that argument applies where the "long tail" had depended for its existence on cross-subsidization by the more popular products, and where the cross-subsidization is coming to an end.

Indeed, I wonder if this "unbundling" trend will ever hit the universities, which (I would guess) currently involve massive cross-subsidization from departments that are economically profitable to those that aren't. The only reason that universities can impose such unbundling right now is because they have a monopoly on an important credential, and can therefore tell accounting majors that they will not receive the credential of an accounting degree unless they take a course in American literature along the way. But as universities become more expensive (Baumol's cost disease, perhaps?), there will be an incentive for people to gravitate to alternate credentialing systems that are cheaper because they don't cross-subsidize uneconomical departments. That assumes that the alternate credentialing systems will be credible, of course, and this is all very speculative on my part, but we'll see.
* * *

Carr ends the book with questions about whether it will "change the way we think" as we "come to rely ever more heavily on the Internet's vast storehouse of information as an extension of or even a substitute for our own memory"? "As we put ever more intelligence into the Web, will we, individually, become more intelligent, or less so?" (p. 225). In a McLuhan-esque passage that I enjoyed, Carr says:
The medium is not only the message. The medium is the mind. It shapes what we see and how we see it. The printed page, the dominant information medium of the past 500 years, molded our thinking through, as Neil Postman has written, 'its emphasis on logic, sequence, history, exposition, objectivity, detachment, and discipline.' The emphasis of the Internet, our new universal medium, is altogether different. It stresses immediacy, simultaneity, contingency, subjectivity, disposability, and, above all, speed. The Net provides no incentive to stop and think deeply about anything . . . It's easier, as Kelly says, 'to Google something a second or third time rather than remember it ourselves.' On the Internet, we seem impelled to glide across the slick surface of data, as we make our rushed passage from link to link. (p. 227).
* * *

A few final tidbits:

1. I liked a "bootleggers and Baptists" story that Carr told about the adoption of alternating current as the standard for electricity. At the time, Edison opposed alternating current. Says Carr, "Edison, still convinced of the superiority of his own direct-current system, tried to magnify those fears by launching a grisly public relations campaign aimed at having high-power AC systems banned. Teaming up with an electrician . . ., he helped stage a series of public executions of animals, including dogs, cows, and horses, using the current from AC dynamos. He even convinced the New York legislature to purchase an AC generate . . . for use in the electrocution of death-row prisoners." (p. 39).

2. The one pet peeve I had about the book -- at least in the pre-publication version -- is the endnoting system, or rather, the almost complete lack of one. I check endnotes all the time when reading a book. Here, however, there are no numbers in the text signaling where an endnote occurs. And the endnotes themselves are listed only under "Chapter 1," "Chapter 2," and so on -- no reference to the textual page numbers (e.g., "Endnotes for pages 1-22), and no numbers corresponding to the endnotes. Instead, the endnotes are identified only by quotes from the text (e.g., "With less than ten people: . . . "). Thus, if I'm reading along in the text and wonder where a certain quotation or fact came from, I have to: 1) flip to the endnotes for that chapter; and then 2) read most or all of the endnotes for that chapter to see if anything corresponds to the text I had been reading (or at least read until the point where nothing seems familiar, and I realize that the endnotes correspond to a point in the chapter that I haven't reached yet).

I don't understand why publishers do this -- the only reason to have notes is to make it more convenient for the reader to check up on certain points. Why do publishers so far out of their way to make the reader jump through needless hoops in order to figure out what endnote goes with what bit of text?
UPDATE: I'm informed by Mr. Carr that the publication version will identify the endnotes by the page numbers from the text.

3. Also there was no index.

** My pre-publication copy is subtitled, "Our New Digital Destiny."


Blogger Venkat said...

Curious. I didn't quite think of Carr's 2nd half argument as an antithesis to Anderson's Long Tail. But that's an interesting angle. I don't think there is a fundamental dichotomy there though, though I admit I can't quite see a way to clearly articulate the synthesis.

My own take on Carr's book is rather different (and slightly more skeptical) than yours. Here is my review. But overall, like you, I am positive about the treatment.

10:15 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home