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Review: The Big Switch, Nicholas Carr

From the back cover:

The Big Switch, Nicholas Carr’s best-selling look at the new computer revolution, makes a simple and profound statement: Computing is turning into a utility, and the effects of this transition will ultimately change society as completely as the advent of cheap electricity did.  From the software business to the newspaper business, from job creation to community formation, from national defense to personal identity, The Big Switch provides a panoramic view of the new world being conjured from the circuits of the “World Wide Computer.”

This is a fascinating, and terrifying book.  Anyone who blogs, and probably anyone who reads this blog, really should be reading it.  Carr first outlines what computing as a utility really means.  He explores the difference that our newest essential utility – electricity – had on our lives, and then extrapolates what happened there to computing and the internet, which has become an essential part of almost everyone’s life in the United States and in many other countries.  I really enjoyed these historical sections and I felt like Carr laid everything out clearly enough to make fairly boring subjects sound really exciting and relevant.  He makes it really clear that the development of electricity only seems linear in hindsight, and so we cannot really expect the development of the internet to seem the same way at the moment, or expect that all wild predictions about it will eventually come true.

Carr uses the second half of the book to explore what widespread use of the internet has done to society.  He attempts to show that rather than widening our horizons, the internet narrows them as we can be more and more specific about who we associate with, what we look for, and what we contribute to.  He cites an experiment which showed that even if people had only a mild preference to live around one or two people like them, they ended up with a neighborhood split between different races.  He extrapolates this to the internet and it definitely had me thinking about the many splits in the blogosphere.  There are definitely splits between just book bloggers, let alone the many other “types” of bloggers out there, so his analogy obviously isn’t far off.  He also demonstrates how the great deal of culture happening on the internet for free is seriously degrading jobs, yet another event that has actually come to pass more so than when the book was written.  People will now happily research, write articles, and make videos, among other things, and distribute their results for absolutely nothing, all taking away paid jobs.  Another aspect of this was how few people are required to run businesses through the internet.  There is a guy who runs a dating website in Canada all by himself, earning thousands per day.  He shows how the internet is becoming essential and inevitable to our lives, and then how it’s already changing everything.  He doesn’t offer any solutions to what he clearly is casting as a problem, but as he demonstrates how wrong predictions have been in the past, it would be almost hypocritical of him to suggest what should be done.

I don’t want to go into more of this book because it truly is fascinating and scary in many ways.  As someone who uses the internet daily and often for hours, its relevance to my own activities was quite startling.  I read this one for The Newsweek 50 Books for Our Times reading project hosted by My Friend Amy, and seriously, it is worthy of its spot on that list.  This is very appropriate for our time.  Of course, I suspect it will become outdated because not everything will happen as Carr implies, but The Big Switch is a thoughtful, absorbing, and somewhat terrifying read for 2009, and for 2010.

I am an Amazon Associate. I purchased this book.

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