The 'World Wide Computer'—Another HAL?

The giant grid of computing power emerging from the likes of Google and Microsoft could have a dark side

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Interesting parallels between electricity and computing

The Bad: Skips over exciting possibilities in medicine and science

The Bottom Line: Quick, clear read on an important theme

The Big SwitchRewiring the World, From Edison to GoogleBy Nicholas CarrW. W. Norton & Co.; $25.95

It was in early 2005 that representatives of an outfit called Design LLC trekked to The Dalles, Ore. They entered into quiet negotiations with local officials for a 30-acre parcel of land on the banks of the Columbia River. Reports later emerged, writes Nicholas G. Carr, former editor of The Harvard Business Review, that Design was working on behalf of Google (GOOG). On that piece of land, the search giant would build one of its massive data centers. Fueled by cheap hydropower and cooled in part by icy river water, this center would fit into a huge networked complex of computing power. As companies like Google, Microsoft (MSFT), and (AMZN) are erecting such centers from the Carolinas to Siberia, they're creating a new form of utility. Together they form a giant computing grid that promises to deliver the vast digital universe to scientific labs, companies, and homes in the decades ahead. But in his thoughtful book The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google, Carr warns this trend could herald a new, darker phase for the Internet—one where these mega-networks could eventually operate as a fearsome entity that will dominate our lives. He dubs it "the World Wide Computer."

Carr is no stranger to raising tough questions about technology's future. Four years ago he had tech executives sputtering over his provocative book, Does IT Matter? His argument then was that information technology was turning into a commodity, like electricity, and that companies could no longer hope to gain competitive advantage by buying the latest and greatest hardware and software. The Big Switch, which can easily be read on a cross-country flight, goes much further in describing that transformation and exploring its consequences.

Many of them, to Carr's eyes, are grim. He sees the trillion-dollar tech industry, built for a generation upon the PC, heading for wrenching change. As businesses and consumers alike tap into the World Wide Computer for software services and store vast digital troves on its distant disk drives, they'll buy less gear.

Traditional economists would applaud these efficiencies, predicting that unleashed resources would flow to innovations and new businesses, creating a host of new jobs. But Carr remains ever the Grinch. He describes a world in which a handful of lucky and brilliant entrepreneurs uses the World Wide Computer to tap humanity's smarts and creativity for free, à la YouTube (GOOG) and Wikipedia, while putting legions of information professionals out of work. If that's not dreary enough, he predicts that companies and governments will be able to harvest data from these networked computers to track our behavior and, ultimately, to control us.

To be sure, some benefits of these trends are notably absent from Carr's book. Many scientists, for example, plan to use these immense computing resources, often known as clouds, to burrow through mountains of data in their hunt for new personalized medicines and clean forms of energy.

Carr, however, confines his analysis to business and society. Here he quotes optimists and visionaries who trust that cheap and plentiful computing will usher in epochal transformations. He cites the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, who predicted that the Web would bring "the workings of society closer to the workings of our minds." In a similar vein, author Kevin Kelly wrote that the "gargantuan" computer provided "a new mind for an old species." In the end, "We will live inside this thing."

In a sense, Carr agrees. But he's hardly sanguine about the results. He sees mankind increasingly laboring for this machine, continually feeding it with data about our every keystroke, e-mail, purchase, or movement. And in time this global computer will get smarter, learning more and more about the patterns of humanity and the world. Carr calls this process "the transfer of our intelligence into the machine," something he finds troubling.

Indeed, Carr worries that individuals could eventally become just neurons in this global brain or, reverting to his 19th century analogy, "cogs in an intellectual machine whose workings and ends are beyond us." Scary? No doubt. But as we prepare for the World Wide Computer, it's not a bad idea to consider its dark side.

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