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Book report: The Big Switch

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The Big Switch by Nicholas Carr tries to be a business book, a history book, and a warning about the future.  Unfortunately, by trying to bite off so many topics, none of them really get a chance to shine.

Punchline: Google is to computers as Edison was to electricity.  There are some interesting parallels between how electricity became popular and the internet showing up everywhere.  I had no idea how fast electricity took off and how influential Edison was as a businessman, founding what became GE and licensing technology (and his name) to various power companies like Consolidated Edison.

What’s good: The first half of the book gives a snapshot into the time when electricity evolved from being virtually nonexistent to becoming the primary power in businesses, transportation and homes.  What’s hard to believe is that all of this happened in a span of 30 years (between 1880-1910). There’s a similar story showing the beginnings of the internet – briefly touching on the PC, ARPA, and finally Google.

There are some interesting, but unsubstantiated, claims about how the promise of the internet (democratizing information) might not be true – rather that it’s concentrating wealth and power in a few companies, more than other technologies in the past.

What’s bad: It felt like the author wasn’t sure who the audience should be, so at times it seemed overly dumbed-down.  But that didn’t really bother me too much because while he’s explaining technology (both electricity and internet) the story is interesting enough to see beyond it.

The first real problem is that there’s no focus to the book – it’s like each chapter was an article written on it’s own without a strong overall theme.  The second, and bigger problem is that when Carr tries to speculate about the future I totally lose interest.  Maybe because I disagree on his conclusions that the internet will kill all kinds of culture, make us all vulnerable to terrorists, and maybe destroy our way of life.

What I learned: Our scheduling software was built around the idea of being a web service from the beginning, but I never considered the scale of this kind of technology.  I live about hundred miles from a Google data center that was one of the first huge ones; power consumption – around 100 MW – similar to a city like Tacoma, WA.  This switch to “utility computing” is going to make software and hardware cheaper and more accessible for a long time.

Would I recommend?: Probably not.  If you want to go to the library and only read the first third, that might be okay, but I think the payoff for the rest of the book isn’t there.

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Written by Harry Hollander

July 6, 2009 at 6:37 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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