History has been known to repeat itself. In The Big Switch: Our New Digital Destiny [LibraryThing / WorldCat], Nicholas Carr identifies one trend that seems to be doing a rerun in our modern world. He connects the rise of electrical utilities in the late nineteenth century and the advent of Internet utilities during our own era.
The parallels he presents are fascinating. Like localized power generation in the industrial age, modern IT services operate within company structures. Electrical utilities made long-distance power delivery possible, freeing companies to become subscribers rather than producers. Likewise, Carr sees the rise of Internet utilities — web 2.0 commercial storage and processing services — as factors freeing businesses of endless upgrade hassles endemic to hardware and software and motivating them toward using thin clients and farming out many IT functions.
If that was the subject of the entire book, I would have been content. But Carr abruptly changes direction halfway through. From chapter seven on, he paints a (mostly) unflattering picture of a possible future wrought by the web 2.0 dynamic. It is a world where user-generated online content is readily available but profitable for very few people. Computer programs replace thousands of people in the information business. Carr looks specifically at newspaper workers, but his readers can easily extrapolate the discussion to include librarians and other professionals. He also argues that quality in a user-generated culture will suffer and preference-driven technology will further balkanize society.
These are all worthy discussions. I’ve been involved in similiar conversations myself and find them interesting to debate. But the future of Internet culture seems more appropriate for another book. It’s related to the subject from the first half of The Big Switch, but it seems an unlikely balance for a book starting out as an historical comparison. By melding the two topics together in a single volume, Carr shortchanges both. The halves are better than the whole.