Nicholas Carr on Web 2.0, Google, and the Future of Technology

And while he's at it, the controversial author of "IT Doesn’t Matter" – which shook up the tech world – talks about Microsoft's troubles, Steve Jobs as dictator, and why some companies won’t survive.
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Not everyone was happy with Nicholas Carr’s much talked about article, “IT Doesn’t Matter.” Published in the Harvard Business Review in 2003, the article argued that as IT has become standardized, it no longer provides companies with a key competitive edge. Instead, IT is now merely a "commodity," a necessary cost of doing business – not the wondrous gee-whiz tool it was once believed to be.

Not surprisingly, some heavyweight tech vendors were quick to take exception. As they weighed in, scads of other tech analysts jumped into the fray, elevating Carr’s magazine piece into a major industry conflagration. In 2004, he expanded his article into the influential book, “Does IT Matter?”

nicholas carr, does IT matter?

Nicholas Carr

Since then, Carr has trained his analytic eye on any number of topics, including Web 2.0, Apple, Microsoft, Google, and – on a loftier plain – the relationship between memory and information in the digital age. In January 2008, he’ll release "The Big Switch: Our New Digital Destiny," a book that details how changes in technology affect the larger culture.

Datamation interviewed Carr about a variety of topics across the tech landscape:

Q: In your essay about Web 2.0, you write, “The promoters of Web 2.0 venerate the amateur and distrust the professional.” You make the point that the free labor of Web 2.0 – volunteer, amateur content creators – threatens paid, professional content creators. How serious a threat do you think this is?

I think in some areas it’s a real threat. Some of the more recent job losses in the media industry can be traced to the fact that a lot – or some – of those jobs can be replaced by amateurs or volunteers contributing their labor on the Web. For instance, a lot of newspapers and other publications can just go to Flickr and find free photographs to illustrate stories rather than hiring professional photographers.

To me, the problem isn’t with the amateurs, who in many fields can do work every bit as good as the professionals. But there are some things that you really do need professionals for, and you need the companies who hire professionals and bring them together into teams. And the danger is that some of the products that really require professionals and institutions may be lost as companies go over to cheap or free labor.

Q: But it’s not really Wikipedia that’s forcing the LA Times to lay off reporters. It’s the move from paper to the Internet, and that’s a separate issue from professionals versus unpaid labor.

Right. I think they’re connected, but the readership of paper newspapers has been falling for decades. So it’s certainly something that began before the Internet. But I think what we’re seeing recently is an acceleration of the trend, as more and more people get their news online. So obviously the media companies are going to follow them onto the Internet.

There are a few problems, though. One is that, so far, it has been very difficult for traditional media to gain the kind of revenues that they did in the past through print. And second, is that they’ll rely more on blogs, or amateur photographers, or other volunteers to provide free content, given the cost pressures they’re under; they’re going to that model more and more. And again, what that ultimately means is some dark days for a lot of talented professionals. Once they lose their jobs, we might find that we relied on those people more than we knew.

Q: On your blog you observe that, “Like the iPod, the iPhone is a little fortress ruled over by King Steve. It's as self-contained as a hammer.” You say that the iPhone runs counter to the Web 2.0 ethos. What do you mean by that?

If you look at Apple, it’s a company that isn’t particularly interested in the crowd, or social production, or any of these kind of Web 2.0 democratic collaboratives. Steve Jobs is really a dictator and the company runs tightly and secretly, and it produces great products. Like the iPhone, or the iPod.

To me, if you want a great example of the strength of traditional modes of production, you can look at Apple. That doesn’t mean crowds of people online can’t provide good work, but Apple provides a counter example. If you want really great products, sometimes you need small, tightly managed teams of very talented professionals.

Q: You've written about the difference between Microsoft and Apple, observing that a speech by Bill Gates "was a replay of his keynote at last year’s CES. He's still pitching a ‘digital lifestyle’ that nobody wants.” How does this compare with Apple's strategy?

My distinction between Apple and Microsoft is that, Microsoft seems intent on trying to put together grandiose platforms. And that comes through in some recent speeches that Bill Gates has given, where he’s laid out these grand visions of digital lifestyle. Whereas, in contrast, Apple seems to be very much focused on individual products; you might even call them individual tools.

And I think the essential difference between the two companies is that Apple is narrowly focused on producing a handful of great products, and Microsoft is having trouble moving from grand visions to successful new products and services.


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