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Nick Carr's Big Switch

A computer revolution - or the next Fail?

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

A fatalism also creeps into some of the conclusions. Carr suggests the internet is an instrument of control, leading to a quite dystopian conclusion: that as we're building a machine that watches us, he argues, we're becoming more mechanical.

Again, that's a fascinating argument to pursue, but the idea isn't developed. History suggests we need not be so pessimistic. Systems of control tend to be undone by our desire not to play a mechanical or reductive part in them. We always tear up the script in the end.

Religions have succeeded because they return something meaningful to the believer. But if technology utopianism is a quasi-religion, as Carr shrewdly suggests, then it's a pretty lousy one. Like a real religion, this iGod demands endless sacrifice (constant attention to one's "reputation" or Facebook profile, or giving up the right to be paid if you're a creative artist). But in place of salvation or karma, iGod merely offers enlightenment through selfishness, and comes with a a really unattractive eschatology - the "singularity". Without strong bonds, people can slip away from this iGod very easily.

(What a pity that the great academic computing folly of our age, Tim Berners Lee's Semantic Web, receives no critical commentary at all. And in their war on copyright, the utopians have created, in their imaginations, an all-embracing demon as powerful as anything in Medieval literature).

Encore, author

It might be harsh, but not entirely unfair, to say that Carr has allowed himself to be swayed by something he is usually so good at skewering, the historical inevitability argument. It suits the Web evangelists to argue that we're on the brink of a revolution - it drives up their fees. There's no need for a critic to feel quite so constrained.

So of the two mini-books in The Big Switch, one leaves many unanswered questions, while you wish the other went on for much longer. That's not bad, though, and it certainly isn't fatal.

In a few years, academics will be able to look back and compare The Big Switch with say, Chris "Long Tail" Anderson's next book. I'm sure they'll be tickled by the comparison. The WiReD editor's forthcoming offering is a manual for desperados called Free. "Round down!" urges Anderson, "if the unitary cost of something is approaching zero, treat it as zero and sell something else."

It isn't hard to tell which of these two authors is trying to sell you a failure. With their economics broken, and their revolution liberating no one, the old WiReD-era evangelists have nothing left to say, except to rhapsodize failure. If only lemmings could read, then Anderson would be the King of Norway.

And anyway - how many other technology books can you think of that leave the audience wanting more?

(I have one suggestion for Carr and his publisher. There's a precedent. Nick's already written his, and a selection of the 'best of' from RoughType would make an excellent companion). ®

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

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