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Q&A with Nick Carr, Author of The Big Switch

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Nick Carr, author of The Big Switch: Rewiring the World from Edison to Google, is the keynote speaker at Search Engine Strategies London, which will be held February 19-21, 2008, at the Business Design Centre in Islington.

A former executive editor of the Harvard Business Review, Nick's 2004 book, Does IT Matter? Information Technology and the Corrosion of Competitive Advantage, set off a worldwide debate about the role of computers in business. His new book, The Big Switch, examines the future of computing and its implications for business and society.

Nick writes regularly for the Financial Times and The Guardian, and his articles have also appeared in The New York Times and Wired, so he's well-known on both sides of the pond. He's published the popular Rough Type blog since 2005 and eWeek named him one of the 100 most influential people in IT in 2007, so he also has "street cred" with both bloggers and journalists.

I interviewed Nick last Friday afternoon. (I should disclose that SES London is a client.) Here's a transcript of our Q&A:

Greg Jarboe: Nick, let's start by talking about your new book, which is divided into two parts. The first part uses historical analysis to build the idea that the Internet is following the same developmental path as electric power did 100 years ago. Will cheap computing ultimately change society as profoundly as cheap electricity did?

Nick Carr: I think it will, though the effects are likely to be very different. Cheap power delivered over a universal grid revolutionized the processing of physical materials. Cheap computing delivered over a universal grid is revolutionizing the processing of informational or intellectual goods. That's why we're seeing such upheaval in traditional media businesses – upheaval that will spread to other sectors of the economy as more products and processes are digitized. We're entering a new and even more disruptive era of computerization.

GJ: The second section of your book discusses the economic, social and other issues associated with the Internet becoming the platform and marketplace for commerce. In your chapter, "From the Many to the Few," you discuss the social impacts of a programmable internet where each person runs their own personal business. Why won't the utopia of equality and cottage industries envisioned by the web come to pass?

NC: The web democratizes expression – everyone with a computer and a connection can be a global broadcaster – but it concentrates the economic rewards. If you look at modern web companies, from YouTube to Craigslist to Skype to the one-man dating site Plenty of Fish, you see businesses that can scale to very large sizes without having to hire many employees. That's because these companies are constructed almost entirely of software code and can draw on the vast pools of cheap resources and labor available on the web. YouTube, for instance, had just 60 employees when Google bought it for $1.6 billion – most of its value came from the video clips contributed for free by its members. It's the aggregators that are the big winners, at least in economic terms, not the legions of individual contributors.

Over the past 20 years, we've seen that the automation provided by computer systems has tended to concentrate wealth in the hands of a small slice of the population. I expect that trend will only accelerate in the years ahead. If you're one of the digital elite, you've got it made. If not, the prospects are less bright.

GJ: Now, let's talk about your keynote speech at SES London. You won't be able to cover everything that's in the 11 chapters of your 270-page book. What will you be emphasizing in your presentation?

NC: I'll sketch out the analogy between the electric grid and our new computer grid – because I think it's a good way to explain where the Internet, and computing in general, are headed. And then I'll look more closely at some of the economic and business effects that will be of particular interest to the audience. I would hope to get people thinking in some new and different ways about the future of the Net and their role in it.

GJ: So, Nick, what will you have to leave out of your keynote speech at Search Engine Strategies London that, if you had time, you would squeeze in?

NC: At the end of my book I look at how the web is reshaping our notions of personal identity and free will – by altering our assumptions about privacy, blurring the line between machine intelligence and human intelligence, and even changing the way we think. I probably won't be able to get any of that into my talk, though I think it's important – and scary.

GJ: So, at the end of the day, is the best way for someone to get their arms around the shift that's already remaking the computer industry, bringing new competitors like Google and Salesforce.com to the fore and threatening stalwarts like Microsoft and Dell, to read The Big Switch and hear your keynote at SES London?

NC: That sounds like a plan.

Greg Jarboe is the president and co-founder of SEO-PR, a search engine optimization and public relations firm. He is also the news search, blog search and PR correspondent for the Search Engine Watch Blog.

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