Context Book – The Big Switch by Nicholas Carr

In this 2008 book, The Big Switch, Nicholas Carr provides an in-depth analysis of the development of cloud computing. Carr uses the history of how electricity came to be centralized as an antecedent to computing power being stored in the cloud. Much in the same way we plug an appliance into the electrical grid without much thought, the services we access through our web devices happen in some distant server farm. As Carr describes, this wasn’t always the case. During early industrial days, artisans had to generate their own power in order to run a mill or a small factory. It was only when electricity became a centralized utility that automation and the assembly line were possible. Similarly, office workers in the late 20th Century would need to connect to a company’s individual server to access files and software. Now, anyone with a web-enabled device can access and share their data via the cloud.

Nicholas Carr presents the history of cloud computing at a Google-hosted conference in 2008.

Carr calls this concept the “World Wide Computer.” The Web itself is a massive supercomputer we all have flexibility to tailor it to our specific needs.

“Our houses, like our workplaces, are all becoming part of the computing cloud. Each of us now has a supercomputer with a virtually unlimited store of data and software, at our beck and call.”

The dramatic shift to Web 2.0 means everyone has the ability to create and produce their own content and share it with others. Instead of using cumbersome software like Dreamweaver, anyone with an internet connection has the tools to build a sophisticated website or blog. A user can create a site on WordPress, post videos hosted on YouTube, photos from Flickr, etc.

“Many of the everyday interactions that used to have to take place in physical spaces — bank branches, business offices, schools, stores, libraries, theaters, even playgrounds — can now take place more efficiently in virtual spaces.”

To quote one of Dr. Stephens’ lectures, “the Web changed everything.” Just think of the daily activities you engage in online. How many of these things were impossible just a few years ago? This web-based MLIS degree would have been unthinkable twenty years ago. Yet we’re all able to communicate and engage with each other despite living all over the country.

Just as the web has changed computing for businesses and individuals, it has also expanded the possibilities for libraries. A few bullet points from Library 2.0: A Guide to Participatory Library Service exemplify the framework for re-thinking library services in the 21st Century:

  • Library 2.0 is a model for constant and purposeful change.
  • Library 2.0 empowers library users through participatory, user-driven services.
  • Through the implementation of the first two elements, Library 2.0 seeks to improve services to current library users while also reaching out to potential library users.

Just as computers no longer need big hard drives, or to run software from a CD-ROM, libraries can become platforms that users can reach from wherever they are. I frequently use Overdrive and Hoopla for e-books, audiobooks, and music that I can access instantly from the library. A more “disruptive” (to use a tech buzzword) idea would be to rethink the library’s physical space. A branch doesn’t need to physically store every book or CD or DVD to be extremely useful. The library becomes a meeting room, or maker space, or Internet cafe.

Think of the physical media as being stored “in the library cloud.” I almost never browse the shelves at my local branch. Whenever I need a book, I reserve it beforehand and pick it up from the Reserves shelf a few days later when it’s available. What if libraries partnered with a service like Amazon Prime Now, where you could check out a book and have it delivered to your home or office in a couple hours?

Though published in 2008, Carr perfectly predicts the current state of cloud computing. As companies like Apple, Google, and Amazon bring their services into the A.I. (artificial intelligence) realm, there’s no telling what the future of information technology will be like. Fortunately, as information professionals, we’ll be ready to face the changes head-on.

Carr, Nicholas. (2008). The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google

Casey, M. E., & Savastinuk, L. C. (2007). Library 2.0: A guide to participatory library service


2 thoughts on “Context Book – The Big Switch by Nicholas Carr

  1. Joel,
    I read your post, because I read The Shallows, also by Nicholas Carr. His books are remarkable as to how they seem to predict the future. His historical documentation is so thorough. I hadn’t thought of the Cloud as creating a giant computer of the web, but that is exactly what we’re looking at now. It’s amazing that he wrote this book in 2008. I think that businesses are going by way of the Cloud for applications so they can charge a monthly or annual access fee, essentially renting access to the software rather than selling it outright. It does add to user convenience, but often the cost is prohibitive to many people.

    • Profile photo of Joel Joel says:

      @loribromac I read The Shallows for INFO-200 and it really changed the way I think about using the web. It is pretty remarkable how he has predicted the rise of cloud computing. My workplaces uses Google for email and document storage and Amazon for web hosting. Unfortunately, that meant we were affected by the big Amazon Web Services outage a couple weeks ago so there’s definitely a tradeoff.

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