Nicholas Carr, famous for being among the first to publicly point out, in IT Doesn’t Matter, that investment in information technology had gone from being a differentiator to a cost of doing business, is back in the limelight with an ambitious new book, The Big Switch (website). It starts out with a fairly focused intent — to understand the potential shift to a service-oriented, utility-based model of computing. It accomplishes that intent rather hurriedly, but reasonably well, and then marches on to bigger things, with mixed results.
The overall recommendation: well worth a read, so long as you stay aware of a couple of critical blind spots in the book’s take.
Anchoring the book is a fairly detailed analogy between utility-based computing and the shift, a century ago, from captive industrial power and candles to electricity grids. The analogy is quite detailed, down to a comparison between Samuel Insull, Edison’s one-time financial consiglieri and later a pioneer in creating the modern electric-power industry, and Marc Benioff, founder of Salesforce.com and one-time right-hand man of Larry Ellison of Oracle.
The title and set up evoke metaphoric visions of a giant, worldwide God computer (there is a chapter title iGod), tightly integrated with humans a la Matrix, and working through a vast infrastructure of both centralized and peer-to-peer computational intelligence. Many (myself included) believe in some version of this vision, and are placing bets accordingly. The ingredients Carr chooses to pick out, to weave into his synthesis, are the usual suspects; if you aren’t familiar with the raw material, here is the short list:
- Software as a Service
- Utility-based computing, grid computing and cloud computing
- Techno-ecosystems such as Amazon’s EC2
- Closer to individual users, Webtops such as those provided by Google Apps
- Virtualization and the resultant loss of identity of what it means to be a computer
You could extend this cast of characters to include more minor players, but that’s enough to give you an idea of the unfolding drama Carr is attempting to chronicle.
Now the challenge in analyzing this grab-bag of fundamental infrastructure trends is to come up with a conceptual model that is somewhere between the dry, dull (and usually short-sighted) white papers produced by professional analysts, and purely metaphoric notions of a Borg/Gaia-like iGod.
Carr’s is a brave attempt, but doesn’t get there.
I had high hopes that something would come of the ‘Big Switch’ in the title, but the raw material doesn’t quite come together coherently, except by analogy to the story of electricity, which suggests that big computing utility companies are going to emerge soon, and that we might see anti-trust lawsuits against the biggest data center and SaaS outfits. But Carr is tantalizingly close. You get the feeling that if he’d just made one more leap of faith and imagination, he’d have come up with a very strong synthesis.
So this part of the book is definitely worth a read. If you work in the field, you will probably be familiar with most of the key technologies he discusses. My own work is slap bang in the middle of this sort of stuff, so I found only a few minor elements that I hadn’t already encountered or thought about. But seeing all the ingredients stewing together in one book was thought-provoking. Certainly a lot more thought-provoking than mulling Microsoft’s obscure and confused .NET version of the grand vision.
If you don’t work in the field, then you definitely need to read the book. I strongly suspect that people who only encounter the highly-visible and apparently chaotic consumer end of this wave of technology (using Flickr, whiling time away on Facebook, or complaining that Google Docs isn’t as good as Microsoft Office) haven’t realized that the apparent chaos of Web 2.0 is being driven by a small handful of deep infrastructural changes that will do more than just change the way you share photos and music.
Over-reach or Grand Narrative?
Now for the second part of the book that goes beyond the simple electricity-analogy treatment of utility/service-oriented computing. Here Carr attempts to explore the potential impact of the Big Switch on the world at large. This part of the book is weak.
As an example of what he attempts, consider this narrative thread: the impact on culture. Carr’s analysis starts with Schelling’s famous self-sorting argument for explaining residential segregation. Next, he cites research at the University of Colorado showing that when allowed to, people seek out like-minded friends and increase polarization with respect to ideological adversaries. Then, clutching hopefully at the idea that cheap/zero cost information flows might enable this dynamic online, he ends with a heavily-hedged vision of cyber-balkanization. A hop-skip-jump just-so story in fact. Entertaining, but not quite a solid foundation for the scale of mega-trend spotting he seems to be shooting for (in fact, I think my own germinating approach to this issue, which I plan to develop further, is more promising).
Privacy issues and security (terrorists using Google Earth) are treated in a similar manner.
In his defense though, nobody else has done a Toffler-esque future-visioning for the world being shaped by the Big Switch trends either.
So verdict for this part: definitely overreach. The convincing Grand Narrative isn’t here yet.
The Critical Blind Spots
I’ll finish up with the critical blind spots I mentioned. So long as you are aware of these, the book is a safe and useful read:
- Not a Done Deal: Carr seems to think utility/service based computing models are a done deal, and only the engineering detail and economic logic needs to be worked out; that we soon won’t need anything more than browsers on our PCs. Far from true (though I wish it were). The fundamental science is far from mature and several pieces of the puzzle are very dubious indeed. Further breakthroughs are clearly necessary. But that’s a more geeky discussion that I can take offline with those of you who are interested.
- Centralized vs. P2P: Carr also lightly glosses over the distinction between centralized and peer-to-peer aspects of the vision (huge earthquake resistant compute clouds on the one hand, and Napsterish P2P ideas on the other). He dismisses the distinction as irrelevant, saying that it is the ‘centralized coordination’ that is the key feature, whatever the physical morphology. Again, not true. The distinction might well end up being critical and substantively change the story the evolves.
- It ain’t Electricity: Finally, the electricity analogy. Carr smartly covers himself by noting that the electricity analogy is limited. Yet, he doesn’t spend too much time exploring the ways in which it is limited. Information is a fundamentally different beast from energy, and the fact that bits can be delivered remotely as easily as watts is not sufficient to anchor an argument for utility-based computing. Portability is not the only (or even most salient) feature of bits.
Not that I have better treatments of these problem areas to offer, but for now, I’ll satisfy myself with pointing out that they are problem areas.
But overall, like I said, good book. Not to mention timely.