Review: The Big Switch

Nicholas Carr has written an important, yet readable, book in The Big Switch: Rewiring the World from Edison to Google. It’s a book that, if the thesis is true, (and I suspect it is) it will have vast implications for those of us working in the technology and product design fields.

Carr’s thesis, simply stated, is that computing power (both storage and processing) will become as cheap and ubiquitous as electricity is now. No longer will we have to wrestle with our own IT, backup storage, software upgrades, and the like; instead, we’ll simply be able to draw on it as needed. It will become a utility, the same way electricity did.

Probably the most fascinating story Carr tells is about how electricity came to be this way. He relates the little-known story not of Thomas Edison (although he does go into that too), but about the other genius, Edison’s former clerk Samuel Insull. While Edison certainly invented the system of electricity, it was Insull who created the electrical infrastructure to bring electricity to wide areas. It was Insull who turned electricity into a utility, in other words. Companies stopped having to run and maintain their own personal power plants and instead relied on electric companies to provide the power for them, cheaply and efficiently.

The same, Carr believes, will be true of computing power, and the rest of the book makes a compelling case for this. Sun’s 1990s mantra “The Network is the Computer” is finally coming true, just a decade later. Carr takes us inside some of these new computing plants and fulminates on the implications not just for business, but also society of this new change.

For product designers, the implications are also enormous. As more objects are put onto what Carr calls the World Wide Computer, they will be able to update themselves and only require limited storage plus some processing power: the rest can be gotten from the internet. Objects will be able to communicate rapidly with other objects, and download the personal preferences of their users–even public objects like vending machines or shared objects like Zip cars.

This isn’t anything really new to anyone who has been paying attention, of course. But if what Carr says is true (and All Signs Point to Yes), it’s a fact we’re going to have to start designing for sooner rather than later.