The Big Switch
Rewiring the World,
From Edison to Google

Nicholas Carr
The most successful internet companies have a minimal workforce and a huge volunteer base. At Amazon, the customers donate book reviews. Wikipedia's entries are written for free by knowledgeable experts. Those who access YouTube put up the videos that they have written, directed, produced, taped (and often starred in). Skype uses, mainly, the storage space on the Personal Computers of its subscribers. The original "cyber-sweatshop" was American Online, where "members were performing unpaid jobs for the company, such as moderating chat rooms." These volunteers liked to create, "show off their creations to others," be part of "communal projects."

It's a volunteer world out there in cyberland, which give enormous profits to those who invent the concept: here's a space, you fill it. The information base that is Google consists of thousands of PCs wired together to search out the millions of pages put up by millions of (mostly) unpaid experts. Google thus does nothing more than create an index of our indices collected by their spiders. (nice picture: electronic arachnids climbing relentlessly over a billion branches of information). Thus Google is mainly in the index business (you write the book, I'll arrange the table of contents).

For the reviews you read here at RALPH, we solicit books, commission the writers, send out the books, take in the reviews, edit them, program the HTML, install the pictures, choose the page colors and layout, supply "title," "keywords," and "description," and bind them all together under the web-address Within thirty-six hours of the placement of this review, those relentless Google spinners will have found it and, depending on its popularity, or the popularity of its subject, it will appear in a variety of places under the words "computers," "Internet," "Nicholas Carr," "The Big Switch," and "World Wide Computer" (among others).

So far, so benign. Our free gift to the world (and for Google's composite picture of the knowledge world. Knowledge for knowledge's sake). But, according to Carr, Google is now working on something called "audio-fingerprinting." Every computer has a microphone. They are setting up monitors for the "ambient audio" in your work area, plan to

    use it for personalization purposes. If you have your television on, the system can identify the program you're watching by recording a sample of its audio signal and comparing it to an "audio database" stored in a Google data center. The company could then feed you stories or ads keyed to your favorite shows.

Since many of us leave our computers on all the time --- and many are located in our bedrooms --- Google (and other profile seekers) can presumably listen in on us nagging the kids, ordering pizza on the telephone, fighting with our wives, whispering to our lovers, or throwing up. In some future date, you and your interests and loves (and what it is that makes you throw up) will be stuck into some data base somewhere.

You think you are secure in your secure home. But the noise world that surrounds you, as well as your every word, sigh, moan and laugh will be monitored, fed into a giant data center, so that marketing people (or the government) (or the criminal types) will have (or already have) a finger in all of your pies: your consuming habits, along with your deepest desires and your deepest and darkest secrets. At least that is what Carr implies.

§     §     §

The Personal Computer, as envisaged by Apple in its ad "1984" was to be "a weapon against central control, a tool for destroying Big Brother-like hegemony of the corporate mainframe and its dominant producer, IBM." But, according to the author, this "breakdown of control proved fleeting." The Internet was seen as "the enemy of bureaucracy, of rigid hierarchy, and of centralization." The weak link in this way of thinking, he asserts, is programming "which is nothing if not a method of control."

    Even though the Internet still has no center, technically speaking, control can now be wielded, through software code, from anywhere. What's different, in comparison to the physical world, is that acts of control become harder to detect and those wielding control more difficult to discern.

Every time we visit the World Wide Computer, every time we fill out a form, every time we click on a link, every time we order a disc, venture an opinion, give our email or physical address, we are further enlarging a base profile of our habits, needs, and physical location. If you think you are still anonymous, forget it. A team from the New York Times was able to take data released by Yahoo --- a supposedly anonymous list of over 500,000 users --- and with other information freely available on the web, pinpoint several individuals who had innocently ordered this or that, given certain information about themselves to a variety of on-line service providers. You use the World Wide Computer, and it uses you.

§     §     §

One of Thomas Edison's statements was that "all parts of the system must be constructed with reference to all other parts, since, in one sense, all the parts form one machine." This was his concept used in building the first electric utility, in Manhattan, in 1880. He envisioned lighting the United States with a large number of small utilities in each community. The operating system he chose was Direct Current, which does not lend itself to long-distance transmission. Nikola Tesla devised a system of alternating current which "altered the economics of power supply" ... for AC could be transmitted over great distances. Samuel Insull, starting in Chicago, built the first mega-electrical plants.

Carr claims that what has happened --- or is going to happen --- with computers and the WWW is strikingly similar. You and I have "hundreds of gigabytes of data on our hard drives."

    But once utility services mature, the idea of getting rid of your PC will become more and more attractive. At that point, each of us will have access to virtually unlimited online storage as well as a rich array of software services ... Having our files and software locked into our PC's hard drive will be an unnecessary nuisance. Companies like Google and Yahoo will likely be eager to supply us with all-purpose utility services ... for free.

"We may find, twenty or so years from now, that the personal computer has become a museum piece, a reminder of a curious time when all of us were forced to be amateur computer technicians."

Carr is a good, concise, lively writer. He gives a short, pithy history of the early growth of the electric utility industry elegantly interweaving the stories of Edison, Tesla, and Insull. He then tries to show the parallels with the computer / internet industry. All along the road, there are countless facts and bits of history to amaze and amuse:
  • Edison's first electrical plant was built solely to furnish light to lower Manhattan. But with the availability of cheap electricity, "the first electrical appliance to be bought in large quantities, other than the incandescent lamp, was the electric fan."
  • The poet Ezra Pound was so bewitched by the change ---streets lighted brightly at night --- that he wrote "we have pulled down the stars to our wills."
  • Electrical appliances were supposed to make the day of the "homemaker" easier, but studies show that in 1914, before the availability of many now-common appliances, "the average woman spent 56 hours a week on housework. A more recent study, published in 2006 by the National bureau of Economic Research, found that the hours housewives devoted to domestic work remained steady, at between 51 and 56 a week.
I don't think I have stumbled across a more concise and compelling history of electrical generation (and its centralization), and the computer, computing, and the Internet in specific, and systems and dynamics in general before The Big Switch. It is loaded with quotables. Gordon Moore of Intel: "The power of microprocessors doubles every year or two." Andy Grove's Law: "telecommunication's bandwidth doubles only every century." (This last law has been repealed. During the dotcom boom, enough optic cable was laid by companies "to circle the globe more than 11,000 times.")

Edison famously said that the solution to every problem can be found in how we frame the question. George Dyson (son to Freeman) expanded on this:

    Finding an answer is easier than defining the question ... A solution finds the problem, not the other way around.

"What makes us so smart," adds the author, "is that our minds are constantly providing answers without knowing the questions. They're making sense rather than performing calculations."

--- Irving Spivak
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