Archive for Thursday, January 15, 2009

Rewiring likely to bring about unforeseen consequences

January 15, 2009

In much the same way that the erection of a national electrical grid a century ago wrought wholesale changes in society, so are nascent changes in the Internet likely to wreak big changes in the future.

That’s the thesis of Nicholas Carr’s book, “The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google.”

Changes in technology have always yielded unexpected and unforeseen consequences. For example, the introduction of increasing numbers of cheaply printed books made possible by the invention of the printing press in the 15th century eventually led to widespread literacy. But these ubiquitous books and the change to linear thought also changed the nature of memory. When passing culture from one generation to the next was accomplished by oral traditions — elders remembering stories and passing them on to youths — memory was obviously pre-eminent. Once those traditions could be written down and made accessible to most everyone, the need for memory changed.

Similarly, according to Carr, attaching our homes and businesses to a nationwide electrical grid also brought big problems. Before the electric utility, he said in an interview with Wired, “people had to generate their own power to run their machines — with waterwheels or steam engines or just their own muscles. But as soon as the wires for the electric grid were strung, they no longer had to worry about producing their own power.” All they had to do was plug in.

Of course, as with any new technology, not all the consequences were intended. One of the hopes held out for women was that electricity would free them from the bondage of housework. What actually happened, though, was that the amount of time women spent on household chores didn’t change appreciably — they just spent it running machines instead of doing the chores by hand.

When personal computers first were introduced, they were more or less self-contained. All the computing had to be done with software that was resident on the computer’s hard drive. The Internet, at first, was a place where data was stored, and individual users with the means and know-how could capture the data and manipulate it on their computers. Several years ago, that began to change. “The first clear harbinger of the second coming of the Internet — what would ultimately be dubbed Web 2.0 — appeared out of nowhere in the summer of 1999,” Carr writes. “It came in the form of a small, free software program called Napster.” Napster allowed people to share music on the Internet, and millions did so. Of course it was illegal — the owners of the music received no compensation — and so eventually Napster was shut down.

But the business of supplying computing services on the Internet exploded in its wake. Now, Carr writes, “many of us spend more time using the new Web 2.0 services than we do running traditional software applications from our hard drives. We rely on the new utility grid to connect with our friends at social networks like MySpace and Facebook, to manage our photo collections at sites like Flickr and Photobucket, to create imaginary selves in virtual worlds like World of Warcraft and Disney’s Club Penguin, to watch videos at sites like YouTube and Joost, to write blogs with WordPress or memos with GoogleDocs, to follow breaking news through feed readers like Rojo or Bloglines, and to store our files on ‘virtual hard drives’ like Omnidrive and Box.”

The Internet has already made a lot of changes in our lives, and it’s hard to see some of the changes as improvements. I’ll close with more of Carr’s words:

“The nature and economics of computing will change as dramatically as the nature and economics of mechanical power changed with the rise of electric utilities in the early years of the last century. The consequences for society — for the way we live, work, learn, communicate, entertain ourselves, and even think — promise to be equally profound. If the electric dynamo was the machine that fashioned the 20th Century — that made us who we are — the information dynamo is the machine that will fashion the new society of the 21st Century.”


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