I Finished The Big Switch

No, The Big Switch doesn’t have anything to do with operations or orientations. It’s the latest Nicholas Carr book describing the technological change in the world and our increasing dependence on alternatives to personal creativity. Although the book is all about computing it really has nothing to do with computing at all. Rather, from my perspective, it has to do with the macro sociological behavior described by the human propensity to shift responsibility for thinking away from the personal and to the collective brain.

In that respect the book is rather depressing. The opening chapters engaged me and excited me like no book I’ve read in a long time. The detailed history of electrification and the power grid riveted me. Seriously. Carr lays a foundation that makes it difficult to think that by the end of the book, and the chapter called, yes, “iGod,” that his view of the future is not correct. And his conclusions he sums up well in the epilogue:

…the lightbulb was welcomed into homes and office around the world. But along with its many practical benefits, electric light also brought subtle and unexpected changes to the way people lived. The fireplace, the candle, and the oil lamp had always been the focal points of households. Fire was, as Schivelbusch puts it, “the soul of the house.” Families would in the evening gather in a central room, drawn by the flickering flame, to chat about the day’s events or otherwise pass the time together. Electric light, together with central heat, dissolved that long tradition. Family members began to spend more time in different rooms in the evening, studying or reading or working alone. Each person gained more privacy, and a greater sense of autonomy, but the cohesion of the family weakened.

…[With electric light] objects (seemingly) appear much more clearly, but in realty it flattens them. Electric light imparts too much brightness and thus things lose body, outline, substance – in short, their essence.

My interpretations of Carr’s conclusion is that computing advances will have similar effects on our global community over time as human creativity flattens and power and wealth become more concentrated among the top percentage of the population. Our spirits will flatten as we lose our ability, or rather desire, to be creative and think for ourselves. Why should we when we can Google a second or third time rather than remember? iGod. Geez.

Well, I choose to believe in the enduring and unendingly creative human spirit. So let me leave you with a more positive thought – and a good reason why you need to read a lot and not just a little. I recently worked through the “Technology Accelerators” chapter of Jim Collins’ Good To Great. Collins’ team dives into the micro sociological behaviors within a company, dissecting the decision making processes. They describe the Crawl-Walk-Run concept of the world’s greatest companies and their application of technology as leveraged to the simple concepts that these companies do better than any of their competitors in the whole world – their hedgehog concept. The idea is that technology is an accelerator and not a cause. And the perspective is that humans make the decisions, where the best decisions made by the best companies are made slowly, proven out, and then applied in massive amounts in a very focused effort that complements the company’s hedgehog concept. To spur your own reading, you’ll have to pick up the book to understand the hedgehog concept further. Or you could just Google it. The bottom line is that humans are in control and make the best decisions, and, in my interpretation, that the outcome of their decisions benefit the individuals within the company just as much as the company benefits its customer base.



~ by Andy on May 24, 2008.

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