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The Big Switch – Book Review

Far from being a crazed screed seeking to eradicate the jobs of IT professionals, Nick Carr’s The Big Switch is more of a clinical look at a possible dystopic future where the Googlbot & it’s groupies rule our lives, screwing things up due to being single points of failure in a frail “World Wide Computer.” I was expecting a book that would argue the case for moving most enterprise IT to the cloud: to the SaaS, hosted, Web 2.0 nirvana where you access everything from a URL.

Carr’s first book, Does IT Matter? delivered on my pre-loaded expectation. It argued the case that IT spending is largely a waste now-a-days: the high cost of IT doesn’t justify the its resulting business value because IT can’t help you differentiate enough from the competition. Part of that is probably because Does IT Matter? was based on an article, focused on a very narrow train of thought.

While Does IT Matter? sort of fits as a prequel for The Big Switch, the new book is much less narrow. It’s more futurism than now-ism. Kind of cyberpunk even.

But let’s start at the beginning.

Put Your Data Center on a Diet

The first “half” of the book doesn’t really lay out an argument for moving behind-the-firewall IT to the cloud as much as state that it’s the case at-hand. Carr deftly uses the darling of Cloud Cults: the history of the electricity grid. Here, “the cloud” simply means that your IT is run somewhere else and you connect to it via the Internet.

Currently, companies (or “enterprises”) near-and-far tend to run, own, and control all their own computers, software, data storage, and “IT” in general. Or, of course, they outsource the management of it to contractors, which, really isn’t that much different for the discussion at hand.

Paying for all these data centers made sense before we had the fat-pipes, cheap computers, and skills to manage all of that IT at mega-scale (think of the world’s financial marketing data cetners in one data center). It was the only option that worked…like when people maintained their own power stations and generators.

Using the history of the centralization of the electric grid as a sort of guide (even down to standards!), Carr makes the argument that while it may seem to absurd think we’ll be moving all those data centers to the cloud, it sure seemed bonkers – even to Edision himself! – that electric power would be consolidated and standardized.

Most of you, dear readers, have read this train of though ad nauseum, so I’ll spare you the details: read the book, as they say.

The point of the first half of the book is not to argue that we’ll see the IT department and all it’s precious computing resources, company-politcal power, and jobs move to the cloud. It’s to state that the process is well underway. To use another favorite “future of computing” metaphor, the train has already left the station.

This is pretty keen because no one really knows the inside baseball of what a transition from data-center to cloud-based computing would look like. Sure, we know what the end result would be – more or less – but we don’t know how the culture of IT would change, or even the structure. Will we all be going to something at or for it? Or will we just be accessing everything as a web page that mixes together stuff from the public web and locked down data?

The end result, in The Big Switch, is a mass consolidation of data centers into just a handful of hosted data centers in the cloud. There are no on-premise, corporate owned and gardened data-centers or pieces of IT. Now, of course, there’s always the IT of the client machines and the networking management needed to keep those client machines hooked up to the cloud. As outlined in a post last week, there’s actually a whole passel of IT-related tasks that’d still exist; they’re just more “white-coller” (making sure stuff is done: paperwork and meetings) than “blue-coller” (actually doing stuff: SSH and rack-monkeying).

Big Switcher Meet Web Worker

I’m always overly zealous at drawing connections between things, but in an odd coincidence, the “everything to the cloud!” thinking goes well with Anne Zelenka‘s book (“with Judi Sohn“) Connect!. This second book serves as somewhat of a manual for the Carrian Cloud World. For example, The Big Switch lays out a nicely compelling case for how user-generated content share-cropping is letting companies generate tons of cash, virtually for free because users just fork over the data and meta-data. The depiction of the YouTube guys laughing their way through a “thanks to the community (har-har!) for making us rich” is priceless.

While Carr’s narration of the idea tends to focus on users being rubes in companies money making schemes, the point is largely one in disfavor of large companies needing to pool together IP and the people to create it. Instead, smaller groups of people, even individuals, can bundle together IP and assets into competitive companies. While IT may not have mattered in the previous book, it certainly matters a great deal here for all the small guys who want to gut the big-guys, like Craigslist.

Anne explains this another, more positive way in Connect!:

Part of the point and benefit of the people web is that you don’t have to do it all [manage your IT] yourself any more and you don’t have to work through formal organizations either. You can now be more a composer [or user-generated share-cropper land-lord] than a creator from scratch. You can find inspiration, ideas, words, photos on the web – and then use them to create something of personal or social value (giving credit as appropriate). You can share what you create, and the cycles continues. In this world you don’t need heavyweight content creation tools [or behind-the-firewall IT!] quite so much as you used to.

Carr lays out several nice examples of Anne’s thinking blown up to the corporate level: YouTube, Google, Craigslist, etc., etc. The larger point is that old methods of business can’t compete with these super-lean ones because the super-lean ones are getting so much for free and are not typically bound by the same constraints as traditional business. I’ll let you read the book to get the full brunt of it.

This is all just context

Now, it’s my addition to say the first half of the book is just a business-book version of pointing to the whole web worker idea. I don’t think dwelling on that “state of things” is of much interest to Carr. Really, I feel like his interested is in the second half of the book. The part where things get gloomy.

Threats from the Cloud!

“You haven’t heard the good part yet. The fourth plane missed the White House. That was their last target: economic, military, and finally political. They missed the White House because passengers attached them inside the fourth plane. Their families got through to them on cell phones.” Jeb lowered his growl. “That is gonna be the future of this story, Van. It’s phones versus razors. It’s out networks versus their death cult. For as long as that takes.” —The Zenith Angle, Bruce Sterling

Once we’re all wired into this World Wide Computer, we’ve painted ourselves into a number of corners, Carr goes on, each one building well on the next. I’m just going to run through these and leave the details for you to read yourself (they’re all documented quite well in The Big Switch):


Compare the web to a newspaper. On the web, you read only the things you “care” about – Charles Dickens 2.0 and throwing babies off bridges, not “boring” Archduke Ferdinand 2.0 and African fish stories. Left to it’s own devices, The Consumer (that mythical person that lives across the tracks from that other mythical favorite, The Shareholder) will eat the sugar minus the medicine.

“Bundling” the boring with the sugar means you can subsidize the boring with the cash paid for the sugar. In a page-view ranked world – the highest read items are the most valuable. Boring-but-important stuff looses funding. Boring stuff is, of course, typically more expensive to produce (is it really? or are the margins just terrible?), so news outlets will tend to cut it (and the people who do it) first in favor or Britney and “the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.”

Big media: suck it!

The Internets Don’t Kill People…

Just as the web – “World Wide Computer” – is easy and open for the forces of good to use, it’s wide open there for the forces of evil to use. This is pretty much the United States quagmire on guns: guns are great technologies unless you’re a bad person killing a good person.

Carr actually builds up a more solid case than my glib, brief treatment gives it. As the quote above shows, there’s a great tie-in to Bruce Sterling’s Zenith Angle (all about cyber-warfar, James Bond-cum-nerd style!) and the ongoing “Russia attacks Estonia!”-type coverage Sterling does.

Cloud Culture Clustering

Every year, someone does that social graph analysis (as we call it now-a-days) with Amazon book purchases, blog links, or whatever (look for Facebook groups this year!) and finds out that like-minded people stick together on the web. We hang out on the web where people speak our language – metaphorically and literally.

This clustering not only results in cutting groups off from each other, but the obvious things that follow: further entrenchment of their positions and the strife that follows.

Anne’s book is looking to act as an interesting foil to this. I haven’t finished Connected! but so far the idea of forming as many (high quality) relationships as possible seems to be a major part of web working. I don’t know if that means diverse (new and opposing views) rather than/in addition to monetizable (cash!) relationships, but we’ll see.

It’s interesting that Carr doesn’t go down the path of cultural imperialism and the resulting globo-homogonization (c.f. “Disney”) of culture that I’m used to when it comes to this train of thought. I always thought that hippie-crap had spoiled sometime mid-80’s anyhow: I’ll buy the Islands in the Net (hey, there he is again!) idea a bit more.


Again, once everything consolidates into zero-friction access to every node in the ‘net and all the data there-in, junk mail becomes easy as pie. Spam’s evil brothers phishing and identity theft (financial fraud) are the real problems here.

Personal Data Breaches

As the TechMeme junkies have chewed over to no end thanks to you know who, once All the Data in the World is in one place – the World Wide Computer – it’s easier to steal that data and do nasty things.

Insert Scott “You have zero privacy” McNealy here: “Oh, Job Applicant, this is really too bad. From your Facebook site, I see you’re suffering from a chronic medical condition. I’m afraid the HR department isn’t going to want to cover the health insurance for that.” And, of course, worse.

The threat here is with us today. The question is if we can manage it and if it’ll result in cyber-suffering.

The ‘Net is Fragile

Looking at the topology of the ‘net, it sure seems more fragile than we think. I couldn’t upload to the flickr yesterday! Not to mention that the Chinese and Russians are getting all uppity. And here we are going to make our core IT rely on this fragile network. Golly!

I’ll be kind to Carr’s argument here and assume he’s pointing out a perception mismatch: we think the ‘net is solid enough to move everything to the cloud, but it’s really not. The fact that it wouldn’t be stable enough, you know, would be a sort of hole in the idea that everything is ready to move to the cloud.

Look for sentimental IT department folks to cling to this point when arguing against The Big Switch.

Slaves to the Machine: Control

We all are being murdered by a similar process
Whether you work at the candy store
Or slave at the office
The purpose of our life is just to serve the economy
They misinform our minds to paint a picture of harmony
But if you listen then you know that shits out of tune
Cuz the function of our life is just to work and consume
–“Live from the Plantation,” Mr. Lif

We like to headline the ‘net under the illusion that it’s all about personal empowerment against The Man. Not so fast, Bub. For large orginizations – corporate, government, etc. – IT is all about control over “its” people. What with my head in enterprise software, I can’t help but agree with the idea. As Carr says:

The client-server [how quaint!] system, which tied together the previously autonomous PCs together into a network connected to a central store of corporate information and software, was the means by which the bureaucrats [those jerks!] reasserted their control over information and its processing. Together with an expansion in the size and power of IT departments, client-server systems enabled companies to restrict access to data and to limit the use of software to a set or prescribed programs. Ironically, once they were networked into a corporate system, PCs actually allowed companies to monitor, structure, and guide the work of employees more tightly than ever.

For me, this is the best Big Switch threat for you buck. The illusion of ‘net-liberation is unveiled delightfully, reminiscent of the nerd-fight with cyber-hippies in From Counterculture to Cyberculture – and shorter too!

And, yes, it’ll be interesting to see how Connect! fits in here.

Less Money in the System?

One of the themes running through most of the threats – and one I wrestle with often – is the idea that the optimizations that cloud-computing brings means less money in the system. Sure, it’s less “wasted” money, but “waste” is in the eyes of the beholder: you say “waste,” I say “profit.”

As the virtualization feeding frenzy has shown, there’s a lot of belt-tightening to be had in data-centers. We haven’t been as obsessed with maximizing the “inventory” of “computing power” as manufacturing has. Once you remove the spending for all that waste, where does it go? Part of the point of the World Wide Computer is that it doesn’t just transition to Google, Microsoft, and friends. It goes somewhere else, if anywhere at all.

The same applies to the cliché waste of money, advertising and marketing. As the quote goes:

“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted. The trouble is, I don’t know which half.”

When you can track every click and mouse-hover, maybe you do know which half is wasted.

The analogy to electricity works well here: companies spend less on electricity now than when they built their own power plants. They didn’t take those savings and spend the same amount on the energy sector, they shifted that off to other things – like IT!

(Can someone fact check that for me ;>)

The Ending Gets Weird

As you can tell, even though The Big Switch wasn’t what I thought it’d be, I sort of liked it more than I thought I would. Hook-line-and-sinker on marketing, I guess. Carr has this sort of plodding, “just the facts” style that has more that feel of reporting on the future rather than predicting it.

Like a blog post that can’t find a good conclusion paragraph, though, the two endings of the book leave you spinning your feet like Wile E. Coyote over the cliff.

Let’s look at the two endings – one at the end of the last chapter, the other at the end of the Epilogue:

Life is Code

After a chapter entitled “iGod” all about how Google wants to install a Google Toolbar in your brain (not good, just in case you were confused), Carr says:

Our past and destiny are inscribed in software code. And now, as all the world’s computers are wired together into one machine, we have finally been given the opportunity, or at least the temptation, to perfect the code.

Half-empty/half-full maybe?

Candle-light Is Better for Paintings

The short epilogue makes the point (I think) that the semantics pf “technology” is generational. We wouldn’t consider a candle wick “technology,” but it sure as hell is compared to a torch.

I like this ending ’cause it’s nice and amoral, sort of a “hey, shit happens. What’s for dinner?” sentiment:

All technological change is generational change. The full power and consequences of a new technology are unleashed only when those who have grown up with it become adults and push their outdated parents [I’m looking at you, IT Department!] to the margins. As the older generations die, they take with them their knowledge of what was lost when the new technology arrived, and only the sense of what was gained remains. It’s in this way that progress covers its tracks, perpetually refreshing the illusion that where we are is where we were meant to be.

The end quite beautifully phrased for a b-book, really. But then again, as they say, “no matter where you go, there you are.”

So, should you read it?

The IT department is far from dead yet – don’t believe everything you read in Network World 🙂 –Nick Carr

Yeah, I’d say so. Carr’s done a nice job of bundling together the current thinking about what it’d mean to be in a SaaS, cloud, “World Wide Computer” world.

What he hasn’t done is argue that it will happen. Like I said, from the perspective of The Big Switch, cloud computing is such a juggernaut that arguing “if” is a waste of time; you can decide if you agree with that perspective or not and the please advice with the book.

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Categories: Community, Enterprise Software, Ideas, Marketing, Systems Management.

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16 Responses

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Continuing the Discussion

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