Reading The Big Switch #1 – the economist’s world view

Recently I’ve got into the habit of picking up (largely from the Library) a number of books of a certain genre, and ploughing my way through them – in general, it is the ones that are most compelling that will drive me past the first few pages. And so, I currently have, on the bedside table, amongst others:

  • The World Is Flat by Thomas Friedman
  • The Long Tail by Chris Anderson
  • The Big Switch by Nicholas Carr

As well as providing the selection, an advantage is that such books can be seen as a set, as well as individually. Fantasy books for example often seem to start a short period after a massively destructive event, following the perpetrator when he/she is still small, as they pick their way through calamity; meanwhile, popular tech-business-economics books like to mingle anecdote with theorising (to the extent I have likened them to guys in a bar in the past).

To the point – which is the book that has reached the top of the pile – Nicholas Carr’s Big Switch. Highly eloquent, but I can’t help myself wanting to pick holes in it – not through pedantry or resentment I should add, more because in places it just appears plain wrong. “Computing is turning into a utility,” it says on the back cover. “No, it isn’t,” I say. “Cloud computing is a revolution,” it says. “Nope,” I find myself responding – in the knowledge that in the many debates I have with my colleagues Dale, Tony and Martin on the subject, these are points on which we unanimously agree.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for provocative titles that get people thinking, yadda yadda. But it’s not just the conclusions I’m finding flawed, it’s the justifications as well. Which wouldn’t be such a problem if the chap wasn’t so widely read – kudos of course, but what if people actually acted on what is proposed without thinking things through first? Given that by the time I have finished the book I know my flighty mind will already be moving onto even fresher fields, I know I will have missed the opportunity to compose a suitably well argued riposte (if that is what is required). So instead, here is the first in a series of posts about The Big Switch, which offer thoughts as I go along. I promise less introduction, more meat next time.

A. Technology shapes economics shapes society

This appears to be a bit of a theme in the early sections of the book, both explicitly (page 22). Perhaps it’s because I’m not an economist (so what do I know) but I don’t believe the relationship is either linear, nor in the right order. “Technology shapes society shapes economics” would be more accurate, though society does drive technology (particularly in terms of military demand). Economics, from the layman’s perspective, is the mathematics of society – the former may be able to model the latter, and even enable certain predictions to be made, but economics is the mirror, not the thing.

The reason I bring this up is not to illustrate my knock-kneed incompetence when it comes to economics (and to be sure, I would no doubt be left for dead should I meet a bunch of economists in a dark alley and attempt to argue my way out), but because it illustrates the framing of the debate when it comes to The Big Switch. Mr Carr is fundamentally one of a clan who believes economics offers the route to explaining most things societal (and equally clearly, I am not) – with the result that arguments will have an undoubted economic slant. Unfortunately there are many perspectives that need to be taken, of which economics is only one in this case. IT architecture is another (given which, I believe a better parallel for IT might be the evolution of the transport system rather than the harnessing of electricity), and business readiness is a third.

A point I will come back to no doubt (as it is the central premise here) is that while economic drivers for full-fat utility or cloud computing may be compelling, there are a whole bunch of other reasons that make it impossible today. Or indeed tomorrow, or in 10 years’ time. We are currently struggling with the data privacy issues that are caused by single companies or government departments building increasingly complex information stores. Such challenges exist to be ironed out, it could be argued – or equally perhaps they are a demonstration of why we shall never fully consign our personal and corporate lives to the cloud. It’s a similar debate about whether there should be a global super-government – of course it would be more efficient if it could ever work (which is moot), but would it be desirable?

While not knowin’ much about economics, I do understand it isn’t all about money – which is a good job. But to see economics at the centre of the debate – the fulcrum if you will – is as unfortunate as seeing architecture as the centre, or business processes or whatever (I remember having a conversation with someone at a certain large software company, who said everything was about ‘management’ because there was management everywhere). As Anais Nin was reputed to say, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” Or indeed, as our vested interests drive us – it was Mr Carr who pointed out McKinsey’s vested interests, but in his own debating stance he has been very clear that he has decided a certain stance to be true, and his own interest will inevitably to be defend his position.

From here I shall be moving onto more solid ground. The next blog in this series will cover the book’s misunderstanding of client-server, or more importantly, what is really the cause of data centre inefficiency today. Stay tuned.

Reading The Big Switch #1 – the economist’s world view

4 thoughts on “Reading The Big Switch #1 – the economist’s world view

  1. Jon,

    I liked the article.

    Isn’t there a desire in all of us to simplify any issue down to a single verity (here economics being the centre of everything)? If scientific endeavour has taught us one thing over recent history is that most things are complicated and involve the interplay of several different drivers. Even if each of the drivers can be identified (not always easy) and their behaviour modelled (harder) then the complexity that results from their interaction will often be beyond us.

    If economics is “the mathematics of society” then it is worth noting (as an ex-mathematician) that mathematics cannot fully describe the interaction of three bodies under gravity unless we make some major simplifications (such as assuming one of them is very light and therefore has no discernible impact of the others). We can take an iterative approach to generate approximations, but this is not the same as fully characterising the system’s behaviour. In essence things can happen that will not be covered by our estimates.

    If our current mathematical tools fail us in these “simple” matters, then it is not terribly surprising that our economic models are not as mature and useful as they might seem. So, even if it was possible to simplify things down to economics (or indeed anything else), I’m not sure what this would buy us.

    Life is complicated and messy – but such a pronouncement is unlikely to sell business books is it?


  2. Thanks Peter. One thing that makes me grin every time I think about it is the Lego version of Monty Python’s ‘Camelot’, where one (Lego) character looks up at a (Lego) castle and says, ‘It’s only a model’. I’m smiling even now!

    You’re absolutely right – and as I said on Twitter, single issues are like nails in a board, they help the rest of us triangulate towards pragmatic answers. All for it – meanwhile I continue to be concerned that utility/cloud/SaaS etc are seen as ‘the answer’ rather than ‘an option’. Is there a magic bullet to protect against magic bullets?

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