Wednesday, January 02, 2008

First look at Nick Carr's "The Big Switch" and Yochai Benkler's "The Wealth of Networks"

Welcome back one and all. I hope everyone enjoyed the holidays as much as I did this time. While I enjoyed several visits with family and friends throughout the week, most of my time was spent either playing with my son, or preparing the house for the arrival of my daughter in two weeks. As you might imagine, the latter is taking up most of my mental cycles these days.

I did, however, spend some time reading two books over the break, both covering the broad topic of the effects of Web 2.0 and the compute cloud system on society and culture. One is a very positive economic analysis of what the possibilities may be, while the other is a skeptical comparison of the history of the electric grid with the evolving history of the compute grid.

"The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom", by Yochai Benkler--which can be read for free online--surprised me as being a much more fascinating read than I expected it to be. I knew that Benkler was going for a more formal economic analysis of the effects of "non-market" production online (e.g. videos submitted to YouTube, photos on Flickr, etc.), but his analysis of both the trends and possibilities was actually very easy for anyone in technology to understand, and didn't require a lot of economics knowledge. I'm still working on this one, but I will provide some more in depth discussion in later posts.

Nicholas Carr's latest, "The Big Switch: Rewiring the World from Edison to Google", is everything you would hope from Nick, though perhaps with a little bit darker outlook than expected. However, I believe this is a must read for anyone contemplating the utility computing revolution, as it lays out an honest assessment of the evils that utility computing will bring along with the good. Using the history of the electric utility grid as a model, Nick points out that particular technical revolution brought with it promises of the democratization of humankind, but actually unfolded with much more mixed results. Utility computing will be no exception, Carr argues, and I heartily agree with him--though I am not sure I agree with all of his detailed examples and predictions.

I actually recommend reading these two books in parallel, as I have been. Here's what I did, and I think it allowed me to read both texts with a more critical eye:
  • Read Chapters 1-3 of Benkler to get a sense of the economic arguments about how social production will change the way we interact, generate information and entertainment, and possibly change our political and cultural landscape to create a more egalitarian society.
  • Now read Carr's work in its entirety, mostly to get sucked back to earth about how Benkler's grandiose vision is just that, a vision; much of the positive developments Benkler looks for can easily be countered by opposing forces looking to maintain or enhance the status quo.
  • Now finish Benkler's work to gain a detailed perspective of the economics at work in the online world, but with a more critical eye towards his desired social and political outcomes.

I am still working on Benkler's book, but I can say now that my eyes have been opened to how much change is before us, and how the great value we get from social production is tempered by the effects on certain careers, economic segments and perhaps even the quality of work we produce itself.

I will dig into a few specific subjects soon, comparing Benkler's vision with Carr's, and adding my own "special sauce". I would really welcome comments from my contemporaries who have read one or both of these works, including critiques of my critiques. My intuition tells me that those that understand what is at stake, and what could happen--both good and bad--will have a distinct advantage as the next two decades play themselves out.

Update: Below are links to the follow on posts for this joint review of the two works:

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