The Attack of Captain Buzzkill and the Pancake People

Sounds like the name of a cheesy ’50s horror flick. But actually, it’s my nickname for the book I just finished, The Big Switch by Nick Carr.

I first mentioned him and the book in a post a couple weekends ago. I like my crazy title because Carr documents some futuristic doomsday scenarios that that are actually coming true in the Age of Google.

I read the book pretty much straight through, even though I didn’t want to. I was compelled. It felt like a horror novel where things keep getting creepier and you keep turning pages to see who’s going to survive. Kept waiting for the good guys to come up with a way of defeating the monster. But in the end, no one does. Not that it’s Carr’s job to make me feel all warm and fuzzy. Maybe that was the point of the blank cover. There is no answer. We’re headed at full speed into a big blank space where jobs, industries, culture, and maybe even basic traits of humanity are erased. No one knows yet what will come to fill the vacuum. And the new generations that come along won’t even realize what was lost.

The part of “Captain Buzzkill” is played by Nick Carr. He makes a fairly persuasive argument that in the near future we could very well see

  • a total loss of privacy as governments and corporations collect every last bit of information about us, and link all those bits together to know us better than we know ourselves
  • a huge loss of jobs and entire sectors of the economy that just dissolve
  • attacks by cyber terrorists or other baddies that bring widespread chaos
  • an energy crisis as massive data centers suck up all the power
  • a loss of newspapers and the decline of journalism as a whole
  • a loss of any sense of common culture as we each watch our individual channels of content tailored to our idiosyncrasies
  • an ever growing number of political extremists, whose views are reinforced by gerrymandering themselves into virtual communities of like-minded nuts
  • an economy where nobody’s skills are worth anything because either the machine or the crowd will do whatever you do better, for free
  • a total dependence on our machines for our thinking and memory functions to the point where unplugging is equivalent to suicide.
  • a whole lot more assorted unpleasantness

He’s not saying all these things will come true, but there’s plenty of evidence that they could. It’s just as likely that we’re heading toward dystopia as utopia in our wired world. I’d feel better if the book had a crazy, alarmist tone. Carr would be easy to dismiss as some jerk trying to sell books. But everything is calmly reasoned, and extensively documented and referenced. There may be holes in his arguments, but it’s going to take someone more informed than me to spot them.

I do like Carr’s writing style. He’s a good analyst, presenting a lot of data and examples, and patiently fitting all the pieces fit together. This is one bright dude, but he is not in love with jargon. One of my favorite quotes is “Like many multisyllabic computer terms, “virtualization” is not quite as complicated as it sounds.” Amen, and on behalf of the humans, thank you Nick.

The book starts with a prologue in which the author visits the Boston data center of a company called VeriCenter. It is the prime example of Carr’s notion that data processing is on the verge of becoming a utility, generated and supplied like electricity. Shabby on the outside, shimmering on the inside, VeriCenter fairly hums with trillions of bits of data. Cages in which giant server farms purr like silicon lions after a feast. They exist to replace all the hardware, software, and people that corporations currently employ to support their business needs.

While VeriCenter is just 3 subway stops from where I spend my workday, I didn’t think they’d invite me in, so I didn’t ride down there. I am curious though. So I spent a while at their site, and I have to say if I was running the business, I’d at least talk to them. If your #1 goal is to make money, I think you’d be crazy not to. They make a compelling argument for taking all your IT headaches away. I won’t pretend to understand all the details of things like Managed Hosting, Software As A Service (SaaS), Colocation, Infrastructure Outsourcing, etc. But it sure sounds like if your business needs it, VeriCenter has it. All on one monthly bill. Like Comcast or Verizon bundling but for the really big boys.

Underscoring all this was the news on Monday that Google launched a thing called Google App Engine. This is a technology that lets you upload a web application to Google where they run it for you, for free, up to 5 million page hits a month. Goodbye servers. I can’t yet tell what Google’s getting out of this deal, other than expanding their share of the world’s information and technology, by consuming yours.

A lot of The Big Switch is devoted to making the historic analogy to the coming of electric utilities in the last century. Before they could plug in, companies were “as much in the business of manufacturing energy as manufacturing goods.” Same goes nowadays for data processing. Whatever they made, every business had no choice but to also be in the business of data processing. But no more. All data services can be had, like electricity, “through a socket in the wall.”

Carr says the offer companies won’t be able to refuse is “no longer having to house and maintain their own gear, or install and troubleshoot their own software.” Quite right, methinks. But I don’t think he takes this line of reasoning far enough. At least not explicitly. Hardware and software savings are just the tip of the iceberg. The real expensive stuff is the people. Those same companies won’t have to pay the salaries and benefits of the staff who used to work with all those in-house machines and software. Nor do they have to pay the rent and utilites for the office space to house those employees. And the effect is multiplicative: fewer employees means smaller HR, fewer facilities and maintenance staff, maybe smaller security budgets, less office supplies, etc etc etc. Hell, you could buy the small shrimp cocktail platter for the holiday party. Or just have virtual shrimp on a WebEx holiday party.

In my mind, we’re on a road where formerly giant corporations scale down their offices to the size of a less wacky version of the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin. Then the final step is no offices at all. Just a P.O. box, and everyone working from home. No one will slack off, since every keystroke will surely be logged.

Suddenly, the days of an office full of people toiling at their personalized machines chock full of files and individually-licensed copies of software seem hopelessly quaint. Like we were working looms in a mill or something.

The Pancake People appear in the final chapter, titled “iGod” (I thought that was Steve Jobs). Carr talks about us being trained by our machines, as we spend countless hours surfing the Web, to spread our attention and thoughts wide and thin, like pancake batter. We’re encouraged to slide on the surface, never looking deeper, rushing on to the next link. We are being trained, “to act as hyper-efficient data processors, as cogs in an intellectual machine whose workings and ends are beyond us.” Worse, “we will come to think like computers. Our consciousness will thin out, flatten, as our minds are trained.” Our perception, thought, and language become shallow and superficial. The machine does our thinking and remembering for us. Creepy.

And the Pancake People aren’t here by accident. Google wants us to be this way. The founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page created Google not to make internet search work better, but to change humanity by “having the entire world’s knowledge connected directly to your mind.” Those are Brin’s words. It sounds crazy, but they have said they want Google to become so complete and powerful that it becomes a form of artificial intelligence that we are always connected to. Page imagines Google when “You think about something and your cell phone could whisper the answer into your ear.” Sorry Larry, but I don’t want all the world’s information in my skull.

Google now has scientists “really trying to build artificial intelligence and to do it on a large scale.” and finishing the job is “not as far off as people think.” What would a self-aware Google think of us? These things never seem to end well in the movies.

So what does this mean for us in publishing? Probably that the Terminator will be doing all the Photoshop work on your next project. I wouldn’t ask him to tweak the color if I were you. Besides, he already knows what you were going to ask.

One Response

  1. […] and so on that all fit together to make electricity and make it flow reliably, cheaply, and safely. The Big Switch turned me on to this metaphor as a perfect fit for what’s happening to our applications, and […]

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