Geert Lovink on Mon, 26 May 2008 13:16:05 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> review of nicholas carr, the big switch

Review of Nicholas Carr, The Big Switch, Rewiring the World, from  
Edison to Google W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2008, by Geert Lovink

US Internet critic Nicholas Carr managed to write a second bestseller.  
Similar to Does IT Matter?in which Carr posed that IT investments have  
lost their (competitive) strategic value because everybody is using the  
same systems, The Big Switchcan be summarized in one sentence: the  
shift from in-house computer systems to ‘cloud computing’. Instead of  
storing applications on each individual PC, will we soon have  
everything store in central data warehouses. Such data centres are not  
entire new. What’s emerging is the enormous scale in which companies  
like Google are actively anticipating the future migration of  
(corporate) IT systems to a few global hubs, making most of the  
in-house infrastructure obsolete. Already in the 1990s so-called  
‘server farms’ could be found in the vicinity of international hubs,  
profiting from cheap and fast connectivity—a scarce commodity at the  
time. The existence, and location, of such computer warehouses was  
often unknown, even to insiders. If you were in need of a virtual  
server, what counted was speed and reliability, the exact details of  
what and where didn’t matter. This all changed with the opening of  
Google’s data centre in The Dalles, Oregon. The location was chosen  
because of a new, potential scarce resources: cheap electricity. As  
Wikipedians remark, “the performance of server farm is limited by the  
performance of the data centre's cooling systems and the total  
electricity cost rather than by the performance of the  
processors.”Since Oregon server clusters are no longer unknown entities  
run by anonymous telecom firms but have entered centrestage in the ICT  
news reporting.

Virtual hosting of files has always happened, and it could be said that  
file transfer (through ftp, the file transfer protocol) has been the  
core of the Internet project from its inception. Around 1993 geeks  
explained me the workings of the then nouveau World Wide Web as a giant  
ftp (file transfer protocol) machine: a great number of files were  
requested, and then put together on the screen by the browser. What has  
changed since then is not this principle, but the collective desire to  
keep the Internet infrastructure decentralized. The ownership of data  
centres in a few hands will undermine the very nature of the Internet  
and give data centre owners an unprecedented power to control their  

Part 1 of The Big Switchis a brilliantly written allegory about Edison,  
General Electric and Samuel Insull, one of Edison’s clerks. Carr  
describes the development around 1900 to move away from the  
decentralized electrical power supply in which each factory or building  
block would have its own engine, towards the building of large electric  
plants—a development kicked off by Insull—to build one large plant that  
could serve the greater Chicago area. “Manufacturers came to find that  
the benefits of buying electricity from a utility went far beyond  
cheaper kilowatts. By avoiding the purchase of pricey equipment, they  
reduced their own fixed costs and freed up capital for more productive  
purposes.” Along the lines what Carr had already predicted in Does IT  
Matter? “Thanks to Samuel Insull, the age of the private power plant  
was over. The utility had triumphed.”

The Big Switch poses all sorts of interesting questions for those  
activists, researchers and artists who prefer to work independently.  
Ever since we got access to the Internet, in 1993, it has been issue  
whether or not to build autonomous infrastructures, or to virtual  
hosting from somewhere, usually in the USA. We see this dilemma  
repeated these days concerning gmail and other Google hosting services.  
It’s estimated that universities will one day give up their own mail  
servers and let staff decide which email provider they prefer to use.  
Or worse: make a deal with Google. Will the surrender to (corporate)  
utilities cause a backlash and spark off a renaissance of distributed  
computing? How will the heritage of fear and paranoia for the 20th  
century totalitarian states respond to this twist in Internet history?  
On the one hand it could be reassuring for those FLOSS advocates who  
fought against Microsoft’s monopoly position that MS Office-type  
application will be accessed via the Web. It is Microsoft that will  
suffer most from utilitarian computing. But which corporations would  
honestly all their sensitive data, from emails to sales spread sheets  
and strategic planning documents, on a central server of Google? One  
can only be amazed seeing the millions of gmail users are already doing  
just that.

The move towards a utility status could also spark a call for the  
founding of public utilities. Carr doesn’t mention this possibility—and  
maybe it is not something we can expect from a US-American critic with  
a business background. Calls for wireless (communal) public  
infrastructures are heard, not only in Europe. There are already  
numerous non-profit initiatives that install wireless community  
networks. They have sprung up exactly because the initial investments  
for WiFi are low. This is not the case with data centres, and the  
possible search engines, public data storage and other facilities that  
one could imagine necessary for the 21st century public library. The  
fact that our imagination stops here has got more to do with the  
neo-liberal hegemony, and the current poor state of existing public  
infrastructures in most countries than with investments or a deficiency  
of knowledge. What is necessary here is a re-invention of the ‘public’  
in general, beyond inefficient state bureaucracies and hyped-up,  
non-committal corporations that are ready to close down or sell social  
networks and community services if it no longer fits into the  
portfolio. Internet culture could be catalyst in the re-imagination of  
what publicly-owned utilities could look like, but so far the rare  
political projects that exist do not go beyond the best-practice  
do-it-yourself status. Would the utility cooperative be a model here? 

Part 2, Living in the Cloud, deals with the possible consequences of  
the World Wide Computer. It struck me here how Nicolas Carr the book  
author, really is a different author compared to Carr the blogger.  
Whereas the ‘electricity’ essay in the first part has the perfect form  
of an extended argument, with a balanced use of historical material,  
the second part is remarkably weaker in comparison to his often  
brilliant, witty and sharp blog postings. For me, a dedicated Carr fan,  
he is a role-model ‘net critic’ that is well-informed, engaged and  
courageous enough to not only take on large corporations but who is  
also not afraid to dismantle the world of good intentions. This is the  
hardest task. It’s a big research task to take on monopolists (in the  
making). But, on a social level, it’s much harder to deconstruct  
politically correct undertakings from FLOSS and Wikipedia to Google’s  
corporate ethics (“Don’t Be Evil”). A critic runs the risk of becoming  
an intellectual outcast, being accused of cynicism, misplaced irony and  
conservatism. What also struck me in the last chapters is the lack of a  
larger intellectual framework for Carr’s justified criticisms. It’s  
interesting to see Carr referring to Lewis Mumford, Joseph Weizenbaum,  
Neil Postman and James Beniger. There is an impressive tradition in the  
USA of critical technology thinkers, and Carr is on the way of becoming  
one. We should encourage him to follow this road and abandon the  
Harvard Business Review style, that, in the end, is not much more than  
intelligent trend watching as preformed in think tank newsletters.

The step from a critical consultant to a true philosopher should be  
doable for someone as smart as Nicolas Carr. The larger issue is how a  
critical IT research agenda will establish itself outside of academia.  
Carr is one of the few IT writers with a considerable insider knowledge  
who makes a living as an independent investigative journalist. Carr is  
not required to quote the latest European fashions in the humanities  
such as Simondon, Badiou or Agamben. This gives him the freedom to dig  
deeper into underlying trends in the US-American computer business. But  
this position can also become a shortcoming once the writer is in need  
of critical concepts necessary to describe developments in  
society-at-large. Maybe we shouldn’t make more of Carr than an  
enlightened East Coast liberal. But I am not happy with such political  
reductionism. For the stakes are too high, and there are simply not  
enough informed IT critics to make such easy (mis)judgements.

What Carr does develop is a ‘theory of unbundling’. In economics  
unbundling meansthe separate pricing of goods and services. In the  
Internet context this means that we no longer buy a newspaper or  
magazine but only read and download the exact article we’re looking  
for. Unbundling is a consequence of the hegemony of search. In the  
society of the query we filter out the unwanted and classify as it as  
noise. This to the benefit of Google, and to the disadvantage of  
‘bundle’ businesses where editors select content for their respective  
audiences. The outcome Carr sees is social segregation. “It is clear  
that the two hopes most dear to the Internet optimists—that the Web  
will create a more bountiful culture and that it will promote great  
harmony and understanding—should be treated with skepticism. Cultural  
impoverishment and social fragmentation seem equally likely outcomes.”

The Big Switch doesn’t offer a comprehensive theory of control, but for  
those in search of elements of a general network critique there traces  
we can take us further, elsewhere, like Carr’s reflections on Richard  
Foreman’s notion of the ‘pancake people’. We’re unlearning how to  
access our human memory in our brains, replacing it through access the  
databases of the Internet. “The Net provides no incentive to stop and  
think deeply about anything.” This is where Carr, potentially, takes a  
conservative turn and could end up in the complaint camp of Andrew Keen  
and others. This is the risk of criticism as a genre when it  
disconnects from progressive movements and locks itself up in an  
elitist hide-out. However messy the situation, we have to promote the  
Internet as a tool for global mass education, in combination with  
ambitious public education programs. For that we have to reverse the  
disinvestment in education that has happened across the board. Sinking  
prices for storage, traffic and data processing result in data centres  
and new monopolies, but these developments are only a result of much  
broader policies—and it is time a new generation of net critics to  
situate the medium into the techno-social context it now operates in.


Website of the book:
Nicholas Carr’s blog:
Carr’s unbundling thesis, a fragment of The Big Switch: 
Andrew Orlowski’s review of The Big Switch

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