IT Matters: Nicholas Carr on Utility Computing, the Dangers of Internet Culture, and the Google Brain
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in the end. On the whole, do you see the rise of computing as a utility as the path to an even brighter future, if we do it right?
NC: First of all let me step back and say I struggled with the structure of the book. As I got further and further into the research, I found myself being pulled in two ways. I was very enthusiastic about the story of technological discovery and advance, and the in some ways quite heroic efforts of the people who saw that mechanical power could become this cheap utility, and in a similar way, the people today pushing computing forward. As I say in the book, it’s natural to be very enthusiastic about that, because it’s a human achievement that has great effects on people. It also tends to spur a great deal of general optimism about the future, about progress, and about the technology.
On the other hand, as I thought more and more about the implications of this new computing grid, I became more and more concerned—in a quite despairing way at some points—about what could happen when these forces are unleashed. So the book does make this shift. And the hinge is the story of the effects that electricity had. There were many good effects, but when you compare it to the utopian dreams that were espoused at the very beginning of the electric utilities, you see that the effects were really much more complicated, and were both good and bad.
[Today] we have this great new technological system being built. But while there is much good that comes from this, I lay out several reasons for worry. Where I come out on it is that the dangers to society and to culture and most importantly to our sense of personal identity are greater than the benefits. And it has to do with taking the ethic of the computer—meaning very fast, very automated, also very structured in some ways—and beginning to apply it to the processes by which we communicate with each other, and create culture, and even define ourselves.
X: I guess I’m more of an optimist than you seem to be. To take one example, with today’s blogging tools it’s so easy to upload text, images, and recordings, and package them in a nice way, and even self-finance it by putting Google AdSense ads on your site. None of that was possible just a few years ago. To me that’s sort of like handing out canvas and paint to many more people than could have ever considered being painters before. So aren’t we creating the space for more Michelangelos?
NC: No, I don’t think so. It’s great that people have new ways to express themselves. But I don’t see the connection between that and instigating great art. In fact, the bad side of this is that it creates a superficial relationship between people and expression of all sorts. The net is training us to see all of this stuff as pretty much disposable. It seems to me that great art and truly great expression isn’t something that comes quickly. It comes through long hard work and contemplation and slow thinking….. let’s not pretend that dashing off blog entries and reading other people’s blog entries and commenting might not take time away from other valuable cultural things you could be doing with your time, and doesn’t imply some kind of loss as well as some kind of gain. My guess is that it probably means we will have fewer Michelangelos rather than more.
X: Let’s go back to the computing cloud, and talk specifically about the information utilities of today. Google obviously figures prominently in the book and in all of our lives. And going along with their massive presence on the Internet, they are actually building these massive computing plants like this one along the Columbia River in Washington. The parallel between what they are doing and what Edison and [Samuel] Insull [Edison's secretary, later founder of Commonwealth Edison] did is really interesting. At first everyone thought that they needed their own mainframes, and now it’s turning out that computing is more general and everyone can tap into it like a utility, and specialist organizations are kind of taking over, and Google is clearly one of those. Do you feel like that trend has a long way to go before it fully plays out?
NC: I think different spheres of computing will be affected at different paces. I think we are going to see continued massive investment in the computing grid. Google is certainly the most visible. But Microsoft is now scared and is throwing as many billions into it as Google. I think we’re seeing IBM beginning to make bigger investment, and lots of smaller companies, like Salesforce.com and Intuit. They’re all realizing that if these software programs are going to be served over the Net and hopefully scaled up to millions of users, it takes a lot of hardware and a lot of electricity.
And of course as that happen, similar to what happened with electricity, it kind of spurs itself. Because inevitably as capacity grows, the price goes down, the capabilities go up, and there is less and less reason over time for going out and buying a piece of packaged software and installing it on your hard drive or your company’s server.
On the consumer side, most young people today have already moved into the cloud for most of their computing, and I think we’ll continue to see this [evolve] quite rapidly over the next five years. Most people at home doing their taxes or storing their photographs will go online. Small businesses will do what consumers are doing pretty quickly as well, because they don’t want to buy all this gear and hire people. Big companies are going to be the slowest, because they have huge investments in IT. They often have very specialized software. Google isn’t going to … Next Page »