Interview of Nicholas Carr on The Big Switch, Blogging, & the Internet

I recently finished reading Nicholas Carr's The Big Switch, and as a longtime fan of his Rough Type blog asked if he would be up for doing an interview. He said sure, and here is the interview.

What is The Big Switch about?

It's about the interplay between technology and economics and how it influences the way people live and work. I look at how the electric grid transformed industry and society a hundred years ago, which is a cool story in itself, and then I use that story as a way to explain the similar shift that's going on today with computing, as software applications and data storage shift onto the Internet's computing grid. I argue that the rise of "cloud computing," as it's called, will also have far-reaching social, cultural, and business effects - some good, some bad.

What inspired you to write The Big Switch?

It's been clear to me for a number of years that the Internet was going to transform computing - to turn it into a kind of centrally supplied utility. I guess I just wanted to put that shift into a broader context for readers, a historical and economic context as well as a technological context.

The web empowers many individuals. Yet in spite of all this innovation, the middle class in the United States is hollowing out. Why is that? As individuals how can we protect ourselves from that trend?

People with computers and Internet connections have enormous new opportunities to express themselves, and a smaller set of people have also gained new economic opportunities thanks to the Net. But I don't see any sign that the economic opportunities are being widely spread, as they were with industrialization in the last century. I think what we're seeing, in fact, is that software can take the place of labor on a broad scale without creating large new pools of attractive jobs. That's one of the main reasons the middle class has been stagnant in recent years and the divide between the very rich and everyone else has been growing ever wider. As the cost of computing continues to fall, software-based automation will only expand and accelerate. There will still be lots of good opportunities for individuals - the ranks of the rich are bigger than ever - but for the middle class in general things will likely get tougher.

With the publishing economy becoming more attention based, will most writing come in chunks so small and so fast that they lack context and the bigger picture? If so, how could this trend be reversed?

I think it's quite clear that the Internet is training our minds to take in information in quick bursts and that in turn we're slowly losing our ability to maintain the concentration and patience necessary to read extended pieces of writing. This is a phenomenon that many people who use the web a lot have noticed. I think we're probably at the start of a major shift in cognition, and I doubt it's reversible.

Sometimes I read TechMeme and 100 claimed thought leaders are all agreeing on the same thing. Then the next day (or sometimes two days later) you write about how all of them are wrong, and then 2/3 of them agree with you. What makes your contrarian blogging so captivating and buzz-worthy?

The wisdom of crowds is, I think, greatly overrated. Crowds are usually full of crap. So if you see a blog mob happily racing off in one direction, you can be pretty sure that if you go the opposite way you'll find something interesting.

TechMeme, by the way, is a great site to visit if you want to get a quick read on what's going on at the moment in the Internet end of the technology world. But it's a very dangerous site to spend a lot of time on if you're a tech blogger. It narrows your view and promotes rapid-fire me-too-ism. It's better to try to seek out interesting new sources of information, to give yourself some space to think rather than just reacting.

Some bloggers have called you cynical, but many of them fail to see connections that you easily make. What makes it so easy for you to identify relationships that others miss?

I don't really know. Being open to a broad set of influences is important, I think. To me, what's fun about writing - and about thinking, for that matter - is making unexpected connections. When most people write, they get very earnest. They approach writing as if it were work. It's better to be playful, to let your mind and your sentences take chances.

Is user generated content an answer to anything, or does it only accelerate the diminishing content quality problem?

People write blogs and upload photos and videos and tag content because they enjoy it. It gives them satisfaction. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that. But user-generated content does not exist in a vacuum. It competes with other content, and because it's cheap to produce and usually given away free it has a big market advantage. You have to ask yourself what's going to be crowded out of the market - what good stuff are we going to lose. A lot of people seem to think that new digital media represents a break from mainstream mass media. I don't see it that way. I think new media represents a continuation of mass media and a further amplification of some of mass media's worst qualities.

You mentioned studies about political blogs in The Big Switch. From those studies, it seems links, attention, and readership seemed confined and self-reinforcing in some ways. How may search engines (and other gate-keepers) promote the creation of balanced content when people typically vote for content that is aligned with their biases and identities?

That's a good question, but I don't have a good answer. I think what we're going to see is greater personalization in search and other filtering and navigation tools, and in time that will tend to further reinforce biases and push people to have less sympathy for views that are different from their own. I think media personalization is good for search engines and advertisers. I don't think it's a great thing for society.

Some publishing companies already use profit potential to guide what types of content they create and what topics they cover. Could this create a thinning out in many important fields where the economic viability of the publishing in the field is limited?

In the long run, all for-profit publishers are influenced by profit potential. How could they not be? That's not meant as any kind of criticism of journalistic ethics. It's just a simple observation that production shapes itself to the market. So, looking again at the longer term, you can expect that the combination of unbundled content and precisely targeted advertising will mean that some types of content, including some times of very serious, very worthy content, will fall by the wayside or be shunted to a small elite. We may come to look back fondly on the days of bundled content and lots of cross-subsidies.

How far will the shift to publishing profitable topics go. Might we see a weekly (or daily) NYT story on Viagra?

I think it will be more subtle than that, at least for the top papers. What we'll see is a slow but meaningful change in what's published and how it's published as publications adapt to the new modes of information consumption among readers and the new expectations of advertisers.

I just added a subscription based service to access parts of my website. Do you see publishing shifting to charging less for content (using content for marketing) and charging more for interaction? In what areas may selling content without interaction be a viable business model 20 years from now?

I think there will always be niche markets where specialized content carries a high value, and printed books and magazines will probably continue to sell well for a good long time. But for most online publishing, including interactive publishing, a subscription fee is an awfully hard sell.

Increasingly we let machines make decisions for us, which on the surface simplifies things. But what are the hidden costs?

When you let machines take over parts of your thinking, you start to think like a machine. This is the greatest danger posed by the Net. Computers get a little smarter, we get a little dumber, and eventually we meet somewhere in the middle.

Do you feel you have a health records problem, or was Google's recent move into the space guided by profit potential? At some point will people refuse to use the data hoarding ad networks?

There's a huge health records problem - a fatal problem for some unfortunate folks. I think Google sees this as a problem to solve, a problem well suited to its own expertise. I applaud them for their ambition. But I think that using health records as a platform for advertising is dangerous and unethical, and so while I don't doubt Google's good intentions I am very suspicious of how its program will actually play out.

If I was new to the web and wanted to write for a living, where would you suggest I start? What was key to helping you becoming a great writer?

First of all, thank you for the compliment. I think the best way to learn to write well is to read a lot, particularly when you're young and impressionable. If you want to write for a living on the web, your best bet is to find a niche market that's attractive to advertisers, start a blog, and then work like hell. You'll still probably fail, but you never know.


Thanks Nick. If you would like to read more from Nick please check out his Rough Type blog. Go buy The Big Switch today as well, I promise you will like it.

Published: February 25, 2008 by Aaron Wall in interviews


February 25, 2008 - 9:22pm

LOL I love his last line: " You'll still probably fail, but you never know "

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