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Nick Carr's Big Switch

A computer revolution - or the next Fail?

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Evangelists and the net deity

Carr has a keen eye for philistines, misanthropes and the empty-headed prophets of technology utopianism. Jeff Jarvis, Kevin Kelly and Yochai Benkler, for example, have all felt his understated wit.

Jarvis is a former soap critic for a TV listings magazine who has exploited the business of striking fear into media companies better than most. Thanks to "Web 2.0", Jarvis is now considered a media guru, and the BBC and Sky pay handsomely for his advice. For Carr, he's simply the "blogosphere's resident philistine". 'Nuff said.

Carr identifies what these utopians have in common quite clearly - and it's a pseudo-religion: the final chapter is called iGod. He's excellent at pointing out some of the consequences of technology the utopians ignore, such as the body count. Self-styled "revolutionary" utopians always brush aside the consequences of their advice: the means justify the ends.

The web prophets invariably ignore the sheer hopelessness of today's internet for sustaining creative business. This is a deep structural problem: because everyone can get hold of anything in this anarchy, there's none of the scarcity provided by a limited choice of TV channels or movie theatres - and scarcity creates economic incentives for both distributors and creators. Yet for the utopians, some business "model" will pop up and in act of deus ex machina, save the day.

For Carr, correctly, this just isn't good enough. He eschews bluster and his cool analytical approach pays dividends in these passages. He also points to "The Great Unbundling" that's the result of "me media".

A recent scoop here came too late for inclusion, but adds weight to this argument. A cross-section of the music business commissioned Capgemini to examine why the value of music had fallen - when music had never been so popular. The analysts suggested that the largest single factor in the shortfall was unbundling (along with the entry of the supermarkets) - rather than P2P file sharing.

Of course, this doesn't make uncompensated music consumption right or fair - because of P2P, one never has to pay musicians for their music again - but it does show how the destruction of value is more subtle than many people appreciate.

And from here Carr joins the dots, pointing out that when making money is hard, market consolidation results, with power ending up in far fewer hands than it did before. That's a real heresy that the childlike minds of the web evangelists simply can't handle. They're really only in it to take part in a simulation of a revolution.

(Paradoxically, the example above suggests that music can only really be "sold" as a service - strengthening the book's view that this is a new kind of service industry).

The future hasn't been written

Robert Kahn, the "father of the internet", likes to point out that packet networking is still in its infancy, and there's nothing inevitable about the direction of its development. Unfortunately, in making a teleological argument in Part One, Carr rather ties his own hands when looking it comes to looking at the consequences. The result is two Nicks battling to steer the argument their way. Nick1 has seen the future, but Nick2 begs to differ.

For example, Nick1 writes:

"The internet is not simply a passive machine, it's a thinking machine of a sort - a rudimentary one, that actively collects and analyzes our thoughts and desires."

He continues:

"Figuring out new ways for people - and machines - to tap into the storehouse of intelligence is likely to be the central enterprise of the future [our emphasis]".

But as Nick2 has already suggested, this is not intelligence, merely the detritus of what's left behind.

"Surfing the web captures the essential superficiality of our relationship with the information we find in such quantities on the internet," he writes.

Carr knows that the patterns created by the semi-conscious web surfer aren't worth a diddle. On RoughType, he's explained that it's the boundaries between things are what give them value. He's been a devastating critic of Kevin Kelly's enthusiasm for the web's "liquid fabric", as opposed to plain old books.

Similarly, when Nick1 suggests:

"In Google search and [Amazon's] Mechanical Turk - we are beginning to see the human mind merging into the artificial mind of the world wide computer."

We know that's a far-fetched claim, because Nick2 has already pointed out that this is neither "mind" nor "mindful". The superficial relationship with the internet means that Wikipedia - a simulation of an encyclopaedia - is only really harmful when we believe it. So the data mining will pay dividends only when you're selling superficiality - Chuck Norris jokes, for example - and is unlikely to be of much use to anyone else. Marketeers, beware.

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