Q&A with Nicholas Carr, author, The Big Switch

Just as 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 the premise of The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google, the latest book by Nicholas Carr, former executive editor of the Harvard Business Review.

Carr believes that ubiquitous computing is leading to an upheaval in traditional media businesses, which will spread to other sectors of the economy as more products and processes are digitized. He’ll share his thoughts on why we’re entering a new and even more disruptive era of computerization today, when he delivers the opening keynote at Search Engine Strategies New York.

Kevin Ryan, VP of global content for SES, recently interviewed Carr about the forces driving the adoption of cloud computing, the dangers of Big Brother, and the ethics of search engine optimization.

Kevin Ryan: Your 2004 book, Does IT Matter? Information Technology and the Corrosion of Competitive Advantage, described the plug-in IT world. Now we are looking at a plug-in computing world. What factors do you think will force this change?

Nicholas Carr: I think it’s a combination of technical and economic factors. On the technology side, advances in networking, virtualization, parallel processing, and software are combining to make it possible to deliver rich applications over the Net in a way that is often superior to running similar applications on local machines.

Shared software makes collaboration much easier – for instance, as we see in social networks and other Web 2.0 sites. Consolidating apps in central data centers also provides big economic benefits through scale economies in hardware, software, labor, and other resources like electricity. So that combination of ongoing technological advances and growing economic benefits are going to continue to push computing functions out into the so-called cloud.

KR: The central data and application central warehousing issue is interesting, and we have already seen some applications go virtual from Google. Do you think consumers will adopt this en masse, or are we looking at a slow adoption process over a period of many years?

NC: What we’ve seen with the Internet from the very start is that people draw little distinction between applications installed on their hard drives and applications running over the Net – they just go with whichever option provides the greatest convenience, the best features, and the lowest cost.

As web apps continue to improve, in terms of features and speed, I think we’ll see consumers accelerate their shift from private to public apps, and they’ll store more and more of their data online. The shift will proceed over many years, but if you look at how young people in particular are using their computers, you could argue that they’re already mainly operating in the cloud. The idea of buying, installing, and maintaining packaged software is becoming foreign to them.

KR: Software and other application developers, along with hardware manufacturers, seem to be pushing out technology before it’s ready. Will consumer apathy induced by technology overload and frustration override Big Brother and privacy concerns?

NC: People say they’re worried about online privacy, and it’s certainly true when it comes to things like compromised financial accounts. But in general, most of us are willing to trade our privacy for greater convenience, lower prices, and more personalized information. I don’t see any reason to believe that will change. The danger is that, as data mining software grows even more sophisticated, we’ll end up giving companies and even governments the ability to monitor and manipulate us in ways we won’t even be aware of. I’d like to say that won’t happen, but I’m afraid I believe it will – at least to some extent.

KR: Speaking of privacy, one part of the book I found particularly fascinating was the growth of ad platforms and Google’s ambient audio targeting technology. Do you think technologies like this are practical? Will they ever see the light of day, and under what circumstances?

NC: Google has done tests where it was able to determine, by monitoring a computer microphone, what TV show a person was watching and then personalize ads based on that information. I don’t expect it will roll out that system anytime soon, but given the big financial incentives that companies have to “get into our heads,” I think these kinds of information-gathering systems are probably inevitable.

KR: In our recent SES webcast, you cautioned SEOs to use their power ethically, which has been a major concern for people in the business – almost as long as the practice has existed. What advice would you offer to search engine optimization companies faced with ongoing ethical dilemmas?

NC: Search engine optimization is by definition an exercise in manipulation, so it will always exist in an ethical grey area. Ultimately, as an individual, you have to look at your motivations: Is what I’m doing right now aimed at aiding people or at tricking them?

As an industry, SEO has to take the initiative in self-policing and in educating the public about what it’s doing. It has to come out of the shadows and say, “This is what we do, here’s how it benefits web users, and here are the ways our techniques can be abused.”

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