An Interview with Nick Carr

Last Updated Sep 19, 2008 7:41 PM EDT

The future of business and how it runs has a lot to do with technology. One of the nation's leading thinkers on that future is Nick Carr. Here's an excerpt of an interview I did with Carr. I've also reviewed his book "The Big Switch".

Fitzgerald: What is the big switch?

Carr: The big switch has a couple of meanings. We're switching from one model of computing to another, from a time when our software and data would reside inside our PC or company servers to a time when it is supplied over the Internet from big, central utilities -- the cloud. The second meaning of the big switch refers to the fact that the Internet is, in essence, a big electrical switch. And my argument is that the entire Internet is turning into a single computer that all of us can tap into.

Fitzgerald: Where does the analogy have breakpoints? Where will this grid for computing be different than the grid for power?
Carr: The analogy holds pretty well at an economic level. Both electricity and computing are general purpose technologies that provide a platform on top of which you build all sorts of applications and appliances. For that kind of technology, if you can centralize its supply, you can get big economies of scale. Where the analogy falls apart is when you start thinking about the actual technologies, because obviously electric current is a one-dimensional thing that's supplied over the wires, whereas computing, obviously, has all sorts of facets. What we call IT is a set of modules, whether it's the actual computer processor or the data storage or the various applications

What that implies is that the computing utility, or the cloud computing system, as it's called, will probably be a lot more complex than the electric utility industry, with the potential for many different companies to supply many different pieces of computing. Raw computing power, various applications, and also, much more flexibility in the division between what types of things will continue to run locally within a person or a company's own computer, and what will be spied as a utility.

Fitzgerald: Could you run on a cloud in Europe right now?

Carr: This is where the cloud metaphor itself begins to break down. The cloud is actually made up of particular data centers that are in particular locations. In Europe and elsewhere, there are restrictions on where you can hold data. And so what it might mean is that as a supplier, you'll have to be able to ensure that the data sits in the data center you operate in Dublin rather than the data center you operate in Washington State.

Fitzgerald: You make a wonderful case in the book for why the development of the electrical grid was so powerful for the economy in America and elsewhere. But that was atoms, the cloud is bits. So will it really be as rich a source of innovation, and as much of a force for societal change as electrification was?

Carr: The electric grid changed the physical nature of society. The computing grid's effects are going to be more on the intellectual sphere, how we interact with information and each other. Fifty years from now the world in its structures might not look massively different, but our culture and our intellectual lives will probably look quite different.

  • Michael Fitzgerald

    Michael Fitzgerald writes about innovation and other big ideas in business for publications like the New York Times, The Economist, Fast Company, Inc. and CIO. He’s worked as a writer or editor at Red Herring, ZDNet, TechTV and Computerworld, and has received numerous awards as a writer and editor. Most recently, his piece on the hacker collective the l0pht won the 2008 award for best trade piece from the American Society of Journalists and Authors. He was also a 2007 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science and Religion.