Cecilia Kang, who writes a blog about technology policy for the Washington Post, reports today that FCC chairman Julius Genachowski has been reading my book The Big Switch. Genachowski finds (as I did) that the story of the buildout of the electric grid in the early decades of the last century can shed light on today’s buildout of a computing grid (or, as we’ve taken to saying, “cloud”).
Though, obviously, electric power and information processing are very different technologies, their shift from a local supply model to a network supply model has followed a similar pattern and will have similar types of consequences. As I argue in the book, the computing grid promises to power the information economy of the 21st century as the electric grid powered the industrial economy of the 20th century. The building of the electric grid was itself a dazzling engineering achievement. But what turned out to be far more important was what companies and individuals did with the cheap and readily available electricity after the grid was constructed. The same, I’m sure, will be true of the infrastructure of cloud computing.
As Genachowski said, “An ‘app for that’ could have been the motto for America in the 20th century, too, if Madison Avenue had predated electricity.” Back in the 1920s and 30s, “app” would have stood for “appliance” rather than “application,” but the idea is largely the same.
A commercially and socially important network has profound policy implications, not the least of which concerns access. At a conference last week, Genachowski said that “the great infrastructure challenge of our time is the deployment and adoption of robust broadband networks that deliver the promise of high-speed Internet to all Americans.” Although a network can be a means of diffusing power, it can also be a means of concentrating it.