Friday, March 21, 2008
Nicholas Carr illuminates information technology for the rest of us
Carlisle author Nicholas Carr has managed to remain a very private person in town. To the general public, he is known mostly for his controversial style of writing, questioning common wisdom in the information technology (IT) world, and making some bold predictions on the future of IT.
His most recent book, The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google (2008), has drawn media acclaim. He has also written Does IT Matter? Information Technology and the Corrosion of Competitive Advantage (2004), and is the author of countless newspaper and magazine articles on the computer industry. He writes about technology for people who don’t necessarily understand it by using metaphors.
Carr is comfortable with the reviews that his publications have received, but has a humble goal: “It is fine that my writing is controversial. It does not bother me that it creates a lot of debate. My hope is that I am good at explaining complicated things in ways that people can understand.”
Carr’s style of writing is focused on contemporary technology, yet he gets his inspiration by reading economic history and “seeing parallels on what is going on today.” It is for this reason that his most current book, The Big Switch, is a great read for anyone seeking to understand the future of IT as a utility or a commodity. The Big Switch took two years to write, a period when Carr stayed current on the evolution of the Internet and changed from his initial idea of making the book all about business computing into all about personal computing.
Google as a main character
Carr is an excellent debater. “I am always a skeptic,” he admits. “When I sense that everybody is thinking the same way, it makes me think there is another side of the story.” He zeroes in on the other side of the story, synthesizes the information, and conducts extensive research to find supporting material to build connections. This skill resonates as he speaks about Google. Although Google is the main character of his second book, certain attributes of Google make Carr nervous. “Google’s [business] model represents the future,” he explains. “At the technology level I admire them. Their ambition on the cultural and social front is what I am critical about. Google’s mission is to be the repository of all the information you can imagine, which includes very personal information.” Carr is concerned that Google has increasing power as it holds this information, with the goal of organizing and serving it conveniently over the web. He adds that in some ways Google is now becoming very much like its opponent Microsoft, who was accused of dominating desktop computer software.
Carlisle: home and office
Before moving here, Carr and his wife Ann had never heard of Carlisle. They had lived in Cambridge since Carr was a graduate student at Harvard. Once they had their first child, a daughter, they decided to move west of Boston and landed in Carlisle. For some time they rented an apartment (“half of an old house”) in Carlisle but later moved to Westford. They came back to Carlisle 13 years ago when they purchased their current house on Sunset Road. Their daughter recently graduated from New York University, and their son is a senior at Concord-Carlisle High School. With both of his children in public schools, Carr has high praise for the entire school system, and he particularly loved the Carlisle School because of its small class size.
Carr now works out of his home office, writing regularly for the Financial Times, Strategy & Business and The Guardian. His primary source of income comes from his speaking engagements. He covers different locations on the world, speaking on IT, innovation and business strategy, but all this travel, which was once exciting, has lost its charm. When he is at home, he enjoys the tranquility Carlisle has to offer by taking long walks on the trails with his dog. In addition, he tries to garden "when the mosquitoes allow."
The resources available through the Gleason Public Library make his home office a very productive place to work, as he can depend on the library for much of his research, without having to travel to distant academic libraries. Carr, who acknowledges Gleason Public Library in The Big Switch, highlighted the fact that it was not only the access to variety of reference books, but also the access to various old artifacts. “I can search the virtual catalog (which covers entire Massachusetts) and obtain a copy of an obscure journal that was 30 years ol within a few days of placing the request.”
Planting the seed: writing on IT
As an English literature major with no technical background, Carr’s initial knowledge of IT came with his exposure to the articles he edited on the job. In his first job as a writer at the Mercer Management Consulting firm in Boston, he did substantial ghost writing for a number of “white papers,” published by the small IT consulting department within Mercer. Here he spent 12 years writing and “at a high level came to understand the challenges of IT.” He joined the Harvard Business Review as an editor in 1997, and was the only person on the editing staff that had prior background on the Internet and IT. As a result, he was the “go-to” person for edits on articles covering these topics. Editing the work of brilliant minds was particularly fruitful for Carr, as he taught himself the tools of the IT trade.
Not having been an IT professional puts Carr at an advantage. “I can write at a high level, and can relate easily to a non-technical user. I definitely bring a different perspective from the IT practitioner.” Yet he faces such mind-boggling questions as, “Do I know enough? Am I missing something?” the answers to which, he admits, he will never know for sure.
The future for computer science graduates
With increasing buzz about out-sourcing, and concern that more IT jobs will migrate to the rest of the world, Carr assures his readers that there is still abundant hope for computer science graduates, but he cautions that there will be a shift in the needed skill set. “Computer science will continue to be a very good career choice for people,” he predicts. “We are getting into a time when very high-end knowledge like parallel processing [and] artificial intelligence will continue to be important.” Computer science and math majors who have mastered this sophisticated skill will have a bright future within established companies and can always explore start-up opportunities. But over time, says Carr, there are some jobs that will be rendered obsolete: “As an example, prospects for technician jobs like system administrators will be not be so good. There will be a lot more automation, and these jobs will be lost to out-sourcing.”
Looking at the past and future
If Carr could turn back time, he probably would have opted to be a software programmer. “In college I focused on humanities and literature. Sometimes I wish I had focused more on mathematics. I can see myself going to computer science.” He is intrigued with how software programs are developed. Although from the outside software programming and non-fiction writing may appear to be mutually exclusive, Carr insists, “There is a connection between my type of writing [non-fiction] and computer programs. They both are about creating logical structures with concepts and ideas.”
In the immediate future Carr plans to write another book. Although he is not sure of the topic, he will continue to read, to find new ideas, and question the well-accepted trends. Whatever topic Carr chooses, he will undoubtedly bring a fresh, yet historic, in-depth perspective. Maybe he will even find some time to do some fly fishing, which he hasn’t been able to do, because of his hectic travel schedule.
© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito