IT Matters: The Complete Nicholas Carr Interview

1/7/08Follow @wroush

On January 8 Xconomy published an edited version of my January 4 interview with Nicholas Carr, author of the new book The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google. What follows is the unedited transcript of that interview.

Xconomy: You said you sent the finished version of the book off to your publisher in March. That’s a long time ago, in technology terms. Things move so fast these days that it must be kind of frightening to try to write a book about IT at all.

Nicholas Carr: It is. You have to be very careful what examples you choose, because if you choose the wrong ones, then the companies disappear or go in a different direction or whatever. Which is why I like to tie it to historical trends, because you know that history isn’t going to change that much.

X: When it came time for you, after Does IT Matter?, to figure out what your next book was going to be, why was this the book that formed?

NC: I’m interested in technology and I’m interested particularly in how technology and economics intersect. The way I look at Does IT Matter?, that book looked at computer systems from the standpoint of the business user. And that’s interesting, but it’s a fairly narrow way to look at the subject. I knew that one thing I wanted to do was look at IT, from the supply side instead of from the demand or user side. Briefly in Does IT Matter? I talk about a lot of this stuff turning into a utility service. That was really the basic seed of the [new] book, and as I got more into it it became clear that what was really interesting about what was going on was not just the shift to the utility model but the fact that consumers and small businesses are the ones who are really leading the way there. Big business, which is what I talk about mainly in Does IT Matter?, are the laggards and will move more slowly. So this book looks more closely at consumers, individuals, and small businesses than at big businesses and how they buy computer hardware and software.

X: Thinking about how your two books relate, I wondered if you could talk a little bit about whether this book has a different premise or a slightly different perspective. Does IT Matter? was looking at whether IT matters on a more fine-grained scale to companies and organizations. And if I can summarize that book, the answer was no, because IT is ubiquitous and therefore there’s no particular competitive advantage to any one company. But in a much broader sense, IT as a utility, just like electricity as a utility, does matter. In fact it makes a huge difference to the way our society is evolving.

NC: I’m taking a completely different perspective, really .The new book could even be called IT Matters, because it’s looking at all the ways that information technology does change things, in what I think are very important ways. The original book was written mainly for a managerial audience, who were thinking “Can I get a competitive advantage from these enterprise systems?,” and my answer there was largely no. This book is first of all written for a much broader audience, I hope, than a managerial audience. And as I said, it really looks at what happens when IT—partially as a result of shifting to the utility model—becomes much cheaper, much more available, much more ubiquitous. And in a similar way to what happened with electricity, it matters a great deal, once you get outside the narrow management questions.

X: The book has a lot of history in it. You clearly spent a lot of time delving into a detailed history of Edison and Insull and people like that, and how GE got started. I was curious about whether part of you is a history buff, and whether these questions about large technological systems and how they evolve have been percolating with you for a long time.

NC: You know, for most of my life I haven’t been a history buff, but I began to be interested way back around the time I was doing research for “IT Doesn’t Matter,” the original HBR article, back around 2002. At that point I started to read economic histories of the U.S .and the Western world and how industrial revolution technologies played a particular role. I had been reading about IT before that, but mainly from a present day perspective. And what struck me was that once you start looking at these things form an economic standpoint—and I think economics in large part determines the course of technological change—it struck me that a lot of what we are seeing happening with computer systems has happened with other major technologies in the past that have been adopted in similar ways.

When [new technologies] first come out, companies try to use them in distinctive ways and usually try to supply them themselves. And often they get huge competitive advantages. But pretty quickly it becomes apparent that these are going to become part of the general infrastructure for commerce and society. And at that point they move out into a model where they are supplied by specialist companies, in some cases utilities, in some cases other companies. I became fascinated by how that plays out. And I also saw it could possibly give me a bit of distinction as a writer about modern day technology. I think there is this general assumption that everything we see today is new—that we’ve never seen anything like this before. And from a technological point of view that’s true. But I found that you could explain a lot of this by looking backward. And not many people were doing that.

X: There’s a point in your book where you talk about this question of technological determinism, and I think you actually quote Lewis Mumford, who was a very kind of bleak determinist in a way—although in general the tone of his books if you take them as a whole was sort of hopeful, that we might throw off the shackles of technology, that we might realize we are ceding our free will. You make the point that insofar as he was arguing that we can actually choose which technologies to pursue, he was not quite right, because there is really this economic imperative that determines a lot of the which particular technologies are going to be chosen. So that the water wheel was pretty much completely doomed; it wasn’t a choice in that sense. That argument, though, gets a little harder to apply when you move forward to the present day. I can see how the spread of computing hardware would have been subject to the same kinds of economic imperatives. But I wanted to ask you about the economics of information, and whether information and cultural exchange and everything that’s going on in the blogosphere and on the Internet is subject to the same kinds of economic laws. Do you think we’re at the mercy of technological progress in the same way, now that so much of what’s happening is going on above the level of the actual equipment?

NC: I do, actually. In some ways, I found that I’m even more in the deterministic camp than Mumford. You’re right, he saw these technological forces shaping what we do, but he kept his belief that really we’re free to make any choices we want. I’m less convinced of that. If it were just the technology, I’d say sure. But we live in a market economy and technology shapes the economics of those markets and those markets shape what we do. The way I’d put it, broadly, is that every individual has free choice and can choose to do what he or she wants and can choose to adopt technology or not adopt technology. But at a societal level I think those individual choices don’t really have much effect on the broader evolution of technology, culture, and economics.

It depends on what level you look at. Does the Internet and new technology give every individual in some ways a broader freedom to express themselves, and give them perhaps more choices in the way they structure their work life? I think it does. But when you look above that at how culture in general is being shaped, how we communicate with each other, the economics of employment—I think at that level it is quite deterministic, and it is determined by the forces of technology and economics. It can be influenced, certainly, by governments and regulations and by the heritage of different countries. Different countries and regions do different things. But ultimately we’re pushed in a certain direction. People could have opposed the electrified assembly line in 1915 and chosen not to work on it. But the assembly line was still going to take over manufacturing and change the way people thought of themselves as consumers, and it was still going to push a raft of new products including automobiles into people’s lives. So at that level we didn’t really have much choice at all. It was going to happen. And I think similar things will happen with computing.

X: Exactly how that will play out on the Internet—what we talk about, what kinds of content are available, who’s creating that content, who’s consuming it and how much of it, how the content is sold and who makes money—those questions all seem somewhat up for grabs. But … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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