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Has Nick Carr flipped? Or have we?

Guest post: Chris Matyszczyk follows on my review of Nick Carr's new book with the saga of his own trying exegesis of the text. "You're obsessed with sex," said my ZDNet handler, looking angrier than a caucuser who had just switched his vote from Chris Dodd to Hillary.
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Written by Chris Matyszczyk on

Guest post: Chris Matyszczyk follows on my review of Nick Carr's new book with the saga of his own trying exegesis of the text.

"You're obsessed with sex," said my ZDNet handler, looking angrier than a caucuser who had just switched his vote from Chris Dodd to Hillary.

"But sex gets page views. And you pay me for page views, right?" I replied, stroking my sex robot Larry's smooth, square metal head.

"Why can't you write something about, you know, tech?" growled my handler, his eyes welling with the frustration of a New Year's Resolution broken on January 1st. "THAT's what we pay you for."

Then he threw a book at my head. It was called "The Big Switch: Rewiring the world, from Edison to Google."

And it was written by Nicholas Carr.

"He's important," barked my handler, strutting off, no doubt, to another lunch with investors. "You might learn something."

Now I don't know about you, but the first thing I do before I start a book is to flip to the back to see what the author looks like.

Mr. Carr reminds me a little of Tim Gunn from Bravo's "Project Runway." (Please watch it. It has snarkiness, talent, Heidi Klum and a man who looks like Nicholas Carr.) I imagine
he buys a lot of clothes from Banana Republic and that he has a large house somewhere on the East Coast with dogs and chickens in the vast yard.

I imagine the dogs never try to eat the chickens because they are afraid of Nicholas Carr.

I also imagine he can write one-handed while patting one of his German Shepherds and staring out at the serene countryside.

I imagine all this while beginning the book in bed late one night.

I am still in bed when I have finished the first half, because it is, for a Real Human Non-Techie like myself, utterly fascinating.

His thinking is sharp and simple.

IT, like electricity, will very soon become commoditized, so that we don't even need laptops to store data. Our information will be stored by those whose business is storing information. (One can only hope they are a little more efficient than PG&E.)

We'll just need a screen and an Internet connection. That's it.

I can't argue with his knowledge or his conclusion.

But, the following night, as I return to my bed and Mr. Carr, I sense that the bubbling nature of the second half of his book is the part he really cares about.

Being right about the way machines will work in the future is extremely dandy. Far dandier is predicting the kind of world technological progress is ushering in.

My paramour likes to watch horror films in bed. I think Mr. Carr's book would frighten her more than a double bill of "The Exorcist" and "CBS News with Katie Couric."

By page 146, Mr. Carr has persuaded me that while everyone thinks of the Internet as a liberating, equalizing force, it is, in fact, helping to create a far more unequal world, "a world in which more and more of the wealth produced by markets is likely to be funneled to 'a small fraction' of particularly talented individuals."

So my imagination now begins to understand how it is that, by becoming a very well-known and celebrated blogger, Mr. Carr has that vast yard with all those dogs and chickens.

"The erosion of the middle class may well accelerate, as the divide widens between a relatively small group of extraordinarily wealthy people- the digital elite- and a very large set of people who face eroding fortunes."

"So", I whisper to Nicholas, "I should tell my handler not to pay me for page views, but just for my blistering talent?"

He's too busy making me feel bad to listen.

By the end of the next chapter he promises that "cultural impoverishment and social fragmentation" are just as likely outcomes as greater harmony and understanding. I think he thinks the former are far more likely, but he doesn't want to upset me this late at night.

The last words of the next chapter are taken from the Venezuelan scholar Carlota Perez: "..a very high cost in human suffering."

Mr. Carr is referring to the fact that governments are very, very slow in reacting to technological change. Though I know there are those who feel that perhaps they are a little quicker in China.

By the end of the next chapter, I am reading quotes from that optimistic romantic romp, Cancer Ward by Alexander Solzhenitsyn:

"A man's answer to one question on one form becomes a little thread, permanently connecting him to the local center of personal records administration.(....)..Each man, permanently aware of his own invisible threads, naturally develops a respect for the people who manipulate the threads."

Of course, he's talking about Google. Mr. Carr, I mean, not Mr. Solzhenitsyn.

I think.

In fact, says Mr. Carr, the only difference between our world and that of the Russian author is that at least Solzhenitsyn's Everyman knew who was manipulating his threads.

We don't.

Through most of this enthralling horror story, we come across as dumkopfs of staggering dimensions, allowing, amongst other things, others to make a fortune from our talents. He refers specifically to YouTube as an example.

Is relief in sight?

Well, the last but one chapter, meekly entitled "iGod", describes the haunting vision of how we have become mere pawns of those who design the way the web functions:

"The World Wide Computer and those who program it have little interest in our exhibiting what Foreman calls 'the thick and multi-textured density of deeply-involved personality.' They want us to act as hyperefficient data processors, as cogs in an intellectual machine whose workings and ends are beyond us."

I am temporarily agog at discovering yet another bow to George Foreman's endless brocade of talent.

But then Mr. Carr turns up the wattage on my fear electrodes.

He is most concerned not that computers will begin to think like us, as some of the more entertaining speakers at last year's Singularity Summit believe, but that we will begin to think like computers.

"The artificial intelligence we're creating may well turn out to be our own."

I won't spoil the ending for you. It is a little different, and extremely charming for being so, than you might expect from the rest of the content.

I suspect, Mr. Carr, knowing he's on to something and believing himself utterly unable to do anything about it, typed his final full point, called his dogs together and took them for a very, very long walk in gorgeous woods.

I know the conventional verdict on this funride of a book will be that it is a polemic, a conversation starter.

But as I put it down and go to sleep leaving the lights on, a few words stay with me:

"What if he's right?"

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