An interview with Nicholas Carr, author of The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google.
You write that the computer is escaping its box. How so?
Computers used to be self-contained devices. If you wanted to do something with your PC, you had to buy a piece of software and install it on your hard drive. That began to change when the World Wide Web arrived in the 1990s. Suddenly, if you had a network connection and a browser, you could tap into millions of web pages that were stored not on your PC but on other people’s computers. The PC began to turn inside out—what was important wasn’t what was inside its case but what was outside it.
But that was just the start. Today, a far more radical change is under way, thanks to the proliferation of very fast broadband connections. Rather than just using the Internet to visit web pages, you can use it to run very sophisticated software - the kind of software that you used to have to run on your own drive. Computing is breaking out of its old beige box and moving onto the Internet.
The World Wide Web, you say, is turning into the World Wide Computer.
Right. Now that they’ve been connected with fiber optic cables, all the machines hooked up to the Net are merging together into one giant, incredibly powerful computer - the World Wide Computer. Our own personal PCs, not to mention our cell phones and gaming consoles, are turning into terminals hooked up to that big shared computer. They get most of their power and usefulness from all the software and information that’s floating around out on the Net.
In The Big Switch, I draw a parallel to what happened with the invention of electric utilities a hundred years ago. Before the electric utility, people had to generate their own power to run their machines - with waterwheels or steam engines or just their own muscles. But as soon as the wires for the electric grid were strung, they no longer had to worry about producing their own power. Power was delivered to their home or their office over the network, and all they had to do was plug an appliance into the socket in the wall. That’s what’s happening to computing today. It’s turning into a service supplied over a network. It’s becoming a utility.
What does the rise of utility computing mean for businesses, which have been the biggest buyers of computers and software?
You know, for most of us, the shift in the nature of computing has been almost invisible. As long as you have a web browser and a fast Internet connection, you don’t really care where your software is running. YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, Wikipedia, Google Search, Yahoo Mail, Flickr - none of those programs is running on your PC’s hard drive. They’re all utility services that you share with thousands of other people. And that’s fine, because none of us really cares where our software is coming from—we just want stuff that works.
For companies, particularly big ones, it’s a completely different story. They’ve spent millions or even billions of dollars building private data centers, filling them up with complicated computer systems, and hiring squads of IT professionals to keep everything running. Ever since businesses began installing computers a half a century ago, they’ve assumed that they had to buy and maintain all their own hardware and software. Now, suddenly, that assumption is being overturned, and businesses have to begin rethinking all their past decisions and investments. Do they really need all those expensive systems? Do they even need their IT departments? It’s as big a change as companies faced in the early Eighties when personal computers displaced mainframes – maybe even bigger.
That’s going to shake up the technology industry, isn’t it?
The entire computing industry is going to be turned on its ear. There are a whole lot of big tech companies - Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, Hewlett-Packard, Dell, and many others - that have made fortunes selling the same pieces of hardware and the same software programs to thousands of different customers. As computing turns into a utility and systems begin to be shared, a lot of those sales are going to dry up. Instead of buying new computers, companies will just subscribe to various software services served up online for a low monthly fee. Most of today’s computer giants see this transformation coming, and they’re scrambling to remodel themselves to compete in the new world. Some will adapt successfully. But some are going to fail. And new utility companies - companies like Google and Salesforce.com and even Amazon—are already moving in to take their place.
Microsoft presents a particularly interesting case because it’s been the paragon of the old, PC-centered mode of computing. One of the chapters in my book is called “Goodbye, Mr. Gates.” Gates has announced that he’ll retire from Microsoft in the summer of 2008, and you really couldn’t ask for a better symbol of the change taking place in the industry. The world that Gates and the other PC pioneers created is being dismantled, bit by bit and byte by byte. Ten years from now, it will be a very different industry.
But this isn’t just a business story.
Not at all. The implications of the transformation of computing go far beyond business or even technology. When electricity turned into a utility, it pushed the price of power down dramatically, and that set off a chain reaction that fundamentally changed not only business but media, culture, education, and, in the end, all of society. The expansion of the middle class, the spread of secondary education, the rise of mass media and culture, the flood of consumer products—none of those things would have happened without the cheap current pumped out by big utilities.
I think utility computing is going to send equally big shock waves across society. In fact, we can already see the early effects all around us – in the shift of control over media from institutions to individuals, in people’s growing sense of affiliation with “virtual communities” rather than physical ones, in debates over the security of personal information and the value of privacy, in the export of the jobs of knowledge workers, and in the growing concentration of wealth in a small slice of the population. All these trends either spring from or are propelled by the rise of Internet-based computing. As information utilities grow in size and sophistication, the changes to business and society - and to ourselves - will only get broader and more intense.
Give us an example.
I’ll give you two examples, both of which I discuss in the book. First is the distribution of wealth. Usually when a major new technology comes along, it leads to the loss of certain types of jobs, but it ends up creating a whole lot of new kinds of jobs. We saw that with electricity, which brought a boom in both unskilled factory jobs and skilled white-collar jobs. Computerization is taking a very different course. It’s allowing companies to replace all sorts of workers, skilled and unskilled, with software, but it isn’t creating big new classes of well-paying jobs in the place of the ones it destroys. That’s one of the main reasons that we’ve been seeing the steady erosion of middle-class prosperity over the last two decades. This effect will be magnified by the arrival of the World Wide Computer, which is both displacing additional categories of jobs and allowing other jobs to be transferred overseas where they can be performed more cheaply. If the electric utility helped create the vast middle class, t he computing utility may help destroy it.
Second is mass culture. As the power and the reach of the Internet expands, it’s turning into our universal medium - the way we get information and news and entertainment. And because we can “personalize” this medium to an extent that wasn’t possible with, say, newspapers or radio or TV, we’re getting the power to wrap ourselves in our own custom-designed culture, our own tailor-made media cocoon. Now, some argue that this trend is all to the good, that it will give us more choices, more ability to get precisely what we desire. And there’s certainly some truth to that view. But there are other, darker sides to this phenomenon. For all the flaws of the mass media, it helped give diverse people a common sense of identity; it served as a glue for society. That glue is being dissolved, and a lot of the mainstays of our culture, such as the kind of hard journalism that was traditionally done by newspapers, are facing severe economic threats. As I argue in the book, we may end up losing more than we gain.
Even the rules of national security and defense are changing, you argue.
I think most of us have been blissfully unaware of just how vulnerable the Internet is. Just recently, Estonia got hit by a huge, well-coordinated attack over the Internet - what’s called a distributed denial-of-service attack. Many of the country’s governmental and commercial computers ended up paralyzed, and its entire economy was threatened. No one’s quite sure who instigated the attack, but it revealed some of the truly scary risks inherent in today’s Internet. The Net is rapidly turning into the major infrastructure for trade and commerce, and yet it’s an extraordinarily insecure infrastructure. All around the world, national militaries as well as guerrilla forces are creating plans to “fight the Net,” as the U.S. Department of Defense phrased it in a recent report. I sketch out some of the scenarios for what might be called Cold War 2.0 in The Big Switch, and they’re not pretty. The Net has the capacity to bring people together, but it also has the capacity to divide us in ways we haven’t seen before.
You end the book, though, by looking into the more personal implications of the World Wide Computer—how it may alter our identities and even our minds.
Technology changes us. It doesn’t just change what we do. It changes who we are. The modern self, you could argue, came into being about 500 years ago, when the invention of the printing press led to a great flood of inexpensive books and journals and newspapers. It’s hard to overstate the importance of the printed page in shaping who we are, both as individuals and as a society. I think the Internet, as our new universal medium, will have a similarly momentous effect. It will change us. Clicking rapidly between snippets of information, as we do when we’re online, is a radically different way of developing an understanding of the world than we’ve ever experienced in the past. What does it mean for our memory, for our reasoning, for our sense of self? We don’t know yet. But I don’t think the early signs are particularly encouraging.