Saturday, February 9, 2008

Nicholas Carr's "The Big Switch"

Nicholas Carr, a former executive editor of the Harvard Business Review, writes regularly for the Financial Times, Strategy & Business and the Guardian. His 2004 book Does IT Matter? Information Technology and the Corrosion of Competitive Advantage initiated a global debate about the role of computers in business.

Carr applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book, The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google, and reported the following:
One of the central themes of The Big Switch is how technological revolutions bring unintended consequences, which can reshape society and culture in surprising, and not always happy, ways. The book explores, in particular, the far-reaching changes that are taking place as the Internet becomes our universal medium for finding and exchanging information of all sorts.

But on page 99 I'm looking not forward but backward, to the economic and social effects of the rise, a century ago, of the electric utility grid, a precursor to the Net's computing grid. I've just discussed how one of the first popular electric appliances, the lightweight electric iron, made the pressing of clothes much less physically draining than it had been when homemakers had to use heavy wedges of real iron heated over hot stoves. But that seemingly small transformation in the nature of work quickly led to much broader changes:

As it turned out, though, the electric iron was not quite the unalloyed blessing it first appeared to be. By making ironing “easier,” the new appliance ended up producing a change in the prevailing social expectations about clothing. To appear respectable, men’s and women’s blouses and trousers had to be more frequently and meticulously pressed than was considered necessary before. Wrinkles became a sign of sloth. Even children’s school clothes were expected to be neatly ironed. While women didn’t have to work as hard to do their ironing, they had to do more of it, more often, and with more precision.

As other electric appliances flooded the home through the first half of the century — washing machines, vacuums, sewing machines, toasters, coffee makers, egg beaters, hair curlers and, somewhat later, refrigerators, dishwashers, and clothes dryers — similar changes in social norms played out. Clothes had to be changed more frequently, rugs had to be cleaner, curls in hair had to be bouncier, meals had to be more elaborate, and the household china had to be more plentiful and gleam more brightly. Tasks that once had been done every few months now had to be performed every few days. When rugs had to be carried outside to be cleaned, for instance, the job was done only a couple of times of year. With a vacuum cleaner handy, it became a weekly or even a daily ritual.

The early predictions of an electrified domestic utopia didn't quite pan out. And we can expect, as I go on to explain after page 99, that the grandly optimistic forecasts about the Internet's ultimate effects will also be proven wrong.
Read excerpts from The Big Switch -- "Where did the computer go?"; "Among the dynamos"; "A spider's web" -- and learn more about the author and his work at Nicholas Carr's website and his blog.

--Marshal Zeringue