Sunday, February 08, 2009

Future Shock

We are being watched. Right now, everything I type is being logged, calculated and fed into algorithms designed to help corporations sell me things. At least, that is according to Nicholas Carr, in his book, The Big Switch: Rewiring the world from Edison to Google.

The book is split into two parts. The first is a relatively sober, scholerly account of the rise of so-called ‘cloud computing’ – examples include: Facebook, and YouTube, and Twitter – a basic definition being, an IT service run from the internet, drawing computing power, software tools, or storage capacity from a ‘remote’ source. Blogging is another good example.

Carr talks about the extent to which the internet is used to deliver and then run programs previously run from your desktop. He talks about the massive data centres companies like Google and Microsoft are building in secret locations around the globe, in order to support this new web infrastructure. In doing so he draws parallels between the cuurent move to ‘utlity’ computing and the creation of the electric power grid, highlighting some of the socialogical and economic changes that resulted from electricity becoming something you could just plug into. Carr believes that the tranferr of power from the PC, to ‘the cloud’, will have an equally profound effect on the popular culture.

Then there is Carr the futurist. In this section he paints an increasingly authoritarian picture of what might result from ‘the switch’, as the internet transforms (without a lot of people really realising) from the World Wide Web into the World Wide Computer. Carr seems to want to warn us to remain skeptical, by equipping us with the knowledge and tools we need, to question the authorities that would impose such a change.

In the final chapter things get very strange indeed as Carr reveals the ‘true’ motivation driving Sergei Brinn and Larry Page, the brilliant young mathematicians, who co-founded Google in 1998. What he says sounds ripped from the pages of a science fiction novel, making it exciting, ludicrous and very scary. However, what is fanciful fiction one day is making headlines the next. “Google and Nasa are throwing their weight behind a new school for futurists in Silicon Valley to prepare scientists for an era when machines become cleverer than people,” the Finacial Times told us here on February 3, 2009.

So, given the potential threats to security, ownership, indentity, plurality and dare I say it even spiratuality, the book highlights, it seems odd that Carr should view the change as inevitable. The fact is, the internet can do great things, but that doesn’t mean everything should be on it. For the time being at least, each of us remains the master of our own destiny, we still weild ultimate power over the machines – at the end of the day, we can turn them off.


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