The Big Switch

Nicholas Carr’s The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, From Edison To Google is a look at two major changes in how business behaved. It is part success story, and part warning, and it does a great job of both.

The first fifth of the book is about the process of moving from a world powered largely by muscles or water, and lit only by fire, to industry powered and lit by electrical utilities. No single invention — the electric generator, electric motors, electric lights or power transmission lines — was the key to this second industrial revolution. Rather, it was the construction of systems of generating, delivering and using electricity that led to a complete transformation of industrial production, and laid the foundation (with Hollerith and Watson) for the next great change: digital computing.

Computing is in the process of being transformed as well, this time by the interconnectedness of computing systems and the synergies that networks — local, corporate, national, global and finally home — that are generated by combining computing and networking.

The transformation is not always positive. Carr describes the effect of open communication on intelligence gathering. The United States, which purports to be a defender of liberty and based on individual civil rights, uses the interconnectedness of networks to undertake the most intrusive domestic surveillance ever seen, mostly out of sight and secret even from the Congress and the Courts. At the same time, Iraqi insurgents were using Google Maps to find and attack British troops near Basra. The “communication” networks have led not to better, richer communication, but better intelligence tools for warfighting.

For me, the most surprising part of the book (though it should not have been a surprise) is the discovery that blogs aligned along political viewpoints are making online communities increasingly polarized. The disparate bloggers rarely even read each other’s stuff, and when they do link to each other, it devolves into namecalling. That leaves centrists like me — a card carrying member of both the Republican Party and the ACLU — with nowhere to go.

Part of this polarization is clearly because the nets unite us. People formerly separated by geography find like minds around the world, and quit talking to the people next door or across the street. Since people across the street are real people, and you have to at least listen to them to accomplish things around the block/neighborhood/school/community, you end up having conversations with people who disagree with you.

On the net, you can find people who agree with you, and work together to either enjoy the online community, or organize to change society at large, or some combination. That’s very powerful, and may lead to a better world. If you’re the only sex-positive non-Christian in the PTA, it’s hard to lobby for change. If you’re one of a few thousand (or maybe few million) on the net, you’re not quite so alone, and you have the courage to Do The Right Thing for your daughter and women everywhere.

However, on the net, you tend to stay away from people who don’t agree with you, and groupthink can quickly set in. Suddenly the very nice person who always helps out with school dances and bakes desserts for the teachers on conference nights is nothing but a raving right-wing lunatic who wants to ban all television over a wardrobe malfunction.

The electric lightbulb, Carr opines, started the breakdown of family cohesion. We were no longer huddled around the fire, but instead we were increasingly free of the darkness, and increasingly in separate rooms, with separate interests.

The web may be the informational light bulb that breaks apart communities and builds new ones. To be a positive thing, this new tool leading us out of informational darkness must also get us to talk to each other, and get us beyond shouting and namecalling.


Explore posts in the same categories: Process Change, Software

One Comment on “The Big Switch”

  1. Jerome Says:


    Have you read “Eastern Standard Tribe” by Cory Doctorow? He looks at the idea of the virtual community and their effect on the more traditional communities of the world in that book, and it’s an interesting read in-and-of itself.

    It was interesting to me, as it’s been my role in the last 12 months or so to spearhead the “processizing” of my job — to take the unique knowledge base in my skull and reduce it to a series of repeatable steps that a new person (or my boss) can follow to solve an issue. Thanks for the book review; now it’s on my list of “To Read” books…and I can never have enough of those.

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