Thursday, May 29, 2008

May 2008 Early Indications: Book reviews

Nicholas Carr, The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, From Edison to Google (New York: Norton, 2008)

Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (New York: Penguin, 2008)

In many ways, Nick Carr and Clay Shirky are mirror images of each other. Carr attended and later worked at Harvard; Shirky graduated from Yale and teaches at NYU. Carr worked at Mercer Management Consulting, Shirky at a web startup. Both publish heavily visited blogs. Carr sits on the Encyclopedia Britannica editorial board; Shirky contributes to Wikipedia. Each published in "old media" earlier this year, their books appearing mere weeks apart. They address many of the same issues, but often draw different conclusions. In doing so, they situate themselves in a timeless dialogue about the nature and cost of technological progress.

Judging by the rapid sales of the book based on his "Last Lecture" at Carnegie Mellon, computer science professor and terminal cancer patient Randy Pausch has clearly struck a mass-market nerve. The book elaborates on the themes addressed in the lecture and in subsequent national television appearances, imparting life lessons from the perspective of a dying 47-year-old who will not watch his children mature, marry, or multiply. For our purposes, the key point of the book is Pausch's distinction between two kinds of people: Tiggers and Eeyores, based on the characters from the world of Winnie the Pooh.

Carr exhibits many traits of an Eeyore. After arguing that computing (via Google, Amazon web services, and other instances of "the World Wide Computer") has become a utility sharing many attributes with Edison's successful flavor of electricity, Carr shifts the book's focus. On page 110, he states that the consequences of grid/utility computing "are the subject of the rest of this book." After that point, the news is often interpreted as bleak. More on Carr's inner Eeyore in a moment.

Carr's treatment of the electricity metaphor is less than robust. "In contrast to the switch-over to electric utilities," he notes, "buyers don't face an all-or-nothing choice when it comes to computing."(117) Two immediate problems emerge. First of all, the invention of electrical distribution wasn't a switch-over: for most consumers, radio, television, and air conditioning were not "switchovers" from other tools but appeared sui generis, and the move from candles or oil lamps to light bulbs was more momentous than an economist's substitution. Secondly, people and enterprises often face real alternatives among utilities: ovens and clothes dryers and even air conditioners frequently run on gas, and furnaces run on oil or propane. Automobiles generate power off the grid; batteries store it.

The more important point here is that even though utility models allow capability to run through a pipe or wire, there remains considerable expertise in the construction of the appliances that run on the utility. But information, and information processing, differ substantially from electric current even though all three can run over networks; an information appliance may not compare neatly to a toaster. I think Carr is wrong, and focused on the technology rather than the information, when he asserts that "Business units and even individual employees will be able to control the processing of information directly, without the need for legions of technical specialists." (118) I suppose there is wiggle room, depending on how you define "legions," but the complexity of enterprise information -- its politics, accounting, and governance much more than its hardware du jour -- will not be eliminated any time soon.

Carr's overall point about information processing as a utility covers familiar ground, which is not to say he's off base: the scale of investment by major firms (from Amazon to Yahoo) in massive data centers is well worth contemplating and analyzing. The Big Switch he's talking about most passionately, however, is off the grid: regardless of the fate of corporate IT shops, utility computing is a Bad Thing for individuals. Consider:

-Privacy becomes obsolete:
"Soon, the World Wide Computer will know where we are and what we're doing at almost every instant of the day." (123)

-Inequality is amplified:
"[The Long Tail] is a vision of a world in which more and more of the wealth produced by markets is likely to be funneled to 'a small fraction' of particularly talented individuals." (147)

-Most people's jobs will lose meaning or even disappear:
"Computerization creates new work, but it's work that can be done by machines. People aren't necessary." (136)

-Great works of art will be marginalized:
"We may find that the culture of abundance being produced by the World Wide Computer is really just a culture of mediocrity - many miles wide but only a fraction of an inch deep." (157) and
"Two of the hopes most dear to the Internet optimists -- that the web will create a more bountiful culture and that it will promote greater harmony and understanding -- should be treated with skepticism. Cultural impoverishment and social fragmentation seem equally likely outcomes." (167)

-Evil will run rampant:
"There is reason to believe that our cybernetic meadow [itself the creation of "techno-utopians" like John Perry Barlow, who Carr implies are taken seriously] may be something less than a new Eden." (125) and
"The very qualities that make the World Wide Computer so useful to many -- its universality and its openness -- make it dangerous as well." (171)

-In the end, death is the last refuge for the inheritors of the Old Ways:
"The full power and consequence of a new technology are unleashed only when those who have grown up with it become adults and begin to push their outdated parents to the margins. As the older generations die, they take with them their knowledge of what was lost when the new technology arrived, and only the sense of what was gained remains." (233)

In relation to such a grim vision, it's not hard to position Shirky as a bit of a Tigger (something Carr does in his blog from time to time). Even his book's title -- Here Comes Everybody -- begs for an exclamation point. Inside, the stories cover much the same ground as Carr's:

-Amateurs can reach wide audiences and are eroding traditional business models, particularly for newspapers. (55 ff.) Shirky gives bloggers too much credit, however: for every story they uncover or refuse to let die, there are hundreds of traditional media postings that merely get linked or maybe piled onto in the blogosphere. Opinion, both informed and un-, is easy to find; news is a different story. Operating news bureaus is expensive, and writing hard or investigative news reliably and well difficult, so it's hard to imagine a world without professional reporters. That there will be fewer than there used to be, however, is not necessarily cause for alarm.

-Amateur publishing, formerly a contradiction in terms, is a function of the "scale-free" nature of the Internet: "the old habit of treating communications tools like the phone differently from broadcast tools like television no longer makes sense." (99) This in turn leads to the need for new filtering tools to allow people to cope with the glut of content. Shirky argues, not fully persuasively, that social filtering will address the need. For certain activities (he names hobbies), the crowd can definitely help. For others, the jury is still out. Holocaust deniers, Columbine re-enactors, and people ill at ease with modernity can find ample evidence (and audience) for their views regarding everything from the moon landing to climate change to black helicopters.

-These new communications tools make possible new sizes and types of social networks. These networks can organize and mobilize human knowledge to accomplish new things, both grand (Wikipedia) and small (organize a group dinner). Shirky's example of Voice of the Faithful (143-148), a Boston-based group of Catholic laypeople responding to the local diocese's treatment of pedophilic priests, is a strong point of the book. On the other hand, passionate hoards are sometimes just mobs -- it's difficult to see the output of sports talk radio and websites, to take one example, as Jeffersonian democracy incarnate.

-We are entering a phase in which the implications of modern technologies are playing out in deeper layers. On this, everyone here agrees: as Shirky states, "Communications tools don't get socially interesting until they get technologically boring." (105) There's an old saying that there's nothing so invisible as the familiar. Particularly for the generation currently about 30 and under (increasingly, a demographic independent of geography) cell phones, Facebook, Google, et al are as invisible as oxygen -- and typically as essential.

In contrast to Carr's conclusion which mourns (almost audibly) a lost golden era, Shirky's is upbeat: "Our social tools are improving our ability to share, cooperate, and act together." (304) This view could be construed as techno-utopianism, given that those same tools simultaneously improve people's ability to steal, to undermine, and to splinter. It resonates with me because like Shirky I work with students for whom the new modes are routine, and I don't yet see them pushing me, outdated, to the margins. In its optimism and communitarianism, not to mention its predicates, Shirky's conclusion sounds like a platform Tigger could heartily endorse.

In the end, I must make a plea for a both/and. New technologies make people neither more noble nor more depraved. It's equally true that, as Carr notes, terrorists use the Internet and that, as Shirky cites, eBay's tools allow strangers to trust each other sufficiently to transact sight unseen. For all the creativity and group genius to be found among hacker communities, it's just as easy to see sheep-like following: a recent study at the University at Buffalo found that young adults who watch lots of so-called reality TV carry the behavior of the show's characters into their "production" on social networking sites. According to one of the study's authors, "Promiscuous frienders may be reproducing the fame-seeking behavior that is modeled by reality TV characters." ( [For the full study, see Stefanone, Lackaff, and Rosen, "We're All Stars Now: Reality Television, Web 2.0, and Mediated Identities," Proceedings of ACM's Hypertext, Culture and Communication, June 2008 (forthcoming).]

Carrying on a rich tradition of argumentum ad antiquitatem (appeals to tradition), Carr is wrong to imply that because these technologies are new, they must be bad (and that previously prevalent behaviors, relationships, or arrangements were good simply because they were old). For his part, Shirky is generally more nuanced, acknowledging that all manner of changes -- "some good, some bad, most too complex to label" (14) -- are coming into play, affecting the people and institutions in which they are situated. More often than not, Shirky's narrative feels like an assertion that new forms of technologically-enabled social networks are here and that it's time to a) accept that fact, and b) start to understand some of those changes that are still "too complex to label." As an agenda, I find "we don't know yet" much more appealing than Carr's version of "our new digital destiny" (the book's original subtitle). I simply can't see evidence of a world in which the final promise of such exciting new technologies is for old people to await their end, left with only pre-digital memories to sustain them.