Wednesday, June 24, 2009

"The Big Switch" by Nicholas Carr

Every now and again, you read a book about IT that is well-written, informative, and thought-provoking, while managing to avoid all the usual pitfalls and clich├ęs. ‘The Big Switch’ is definitely one of those books. Nicholas Carr’s previous book (‘Does IT Matter?’) was based on his controversial HBR article, which claimed that IT, though a necessary investment, typically doesn’t convey competitive advantage to companies. In this work, he goes even further, arguing that computing and storage will soon be utilities, like electricity.

Carr explores the parallels with electricity for power and light in the early chapters, explaining how industry switched from generating its own capacity to relying on a grid, once innovations in power transduction, load balancing, and demand metering made this possible. Similarly, he argues that the ability to assemble huge data centers, make software available as a service, and supply cycles and disk space on demand provides companies with the opportunity to get out of the IT business. The resemblance between these two situations, set a century apart, is quite uncanny.

In the later chapters, Carr examines the downsides of IT progress: the stagnation of middle class wages as jobs are computerized, the disembowelment of information and media industries as content is unbundled, as well as subtle cultural and social effects that fall short of the utopian vision. He states that “All technological change is generational change … As the older generations die, they take with them the knowledge of what was lost … and only the sense of what was gained remains.” I think we are all seeing this play out very clearly as the pace of technological change continues to accelerate.