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Obscurantism in the Cloud

Nicholas Carr's "IT Does not Matter" Fallacy and "Everything in the Cloud" Utopia

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Obscurantism (French: obscurantisme, from the Latin obscurans, "darkening") is the practice of deliberately preventing the facts or the full details of some matter from becoming known.

Obscurantism - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Nick Carr made his name with the provocative Harvard Business Review article "IT Doesn't Matter" (free version here), its expansion into a less definitively titled book Does IT Matter? and his generally erudite blog.  The charge of irrelevance hit the industry hard and elicited mostly incoherent and ineffective rebuttals (e.g. "hogwash"), which hampered real discussion of Carr's argument.

Charles Fitzgerald

"Carr's vision is either utopian or dystopian, depending on how you look at it, but either way, it mixes a few likely trends with lots of naive wishful thinking, unsound logic, and sophomoric shock value."

Comment to The IT department is dead, 
NetworkWorld.com,
01/07/2008

Abstract

Nicholas Carr's provocative  HBR article published five years ago and subsequent books suffer from the lack of understanding of IT history, electrical transmission networks (which he uses as a close historical analogy) and "in the cloud" software service provider model (SaaS).  He cherry-picks historical facts to fit his needs instead of trying to describe real history of development of each of those three technologies. To be more correct Carr tortures facts to get them to fit his fantasy. The central idea of the article "IT does not matter" is simply a fallacy. At best Carr managed to ask a couple of interesting questions, but provided inferior and misleading answers. While Carr is definitely a gifted writer, ignorance of technology about which he is writing leads him to absurd conclusions which due to his lucid writing style looks quite plausible for non-specialists and as such influence public opinion about IT. Still as a writer Carr comes across as a guy who can write engagingly about a variety of topics including those about which he knows almost nothing. Here lies the danger as only specialists can sense that that "Something Is Deeply Amiss" while ordinary readers tend to believe his aura of credibility emanating from the "former editor of HBR" title.

Unfortunately the charge of irrelevance of IT made by Carr was perfectly in sync with the higher management desire to accelerate outsourcing and Carr's 2003 HBR paper served as a kind of "IT outsourcing manifesto".  And the fact that many people were sitting between chairs as for the value of IT outsourcing partially explains why his initial HBR article, as weak and detached from reality as it was, generated less effective rebuttals then it should. This paper is an attempt to provide a more coherent analysis of the main components of Carr's fallacious vision five years after the event.

If one looks closer at what Carr propose, it is evident that this is a pretty reactionary and defeatist framework which I would call "IT obscurantism" and which is not that different from "creativism". Like with the latter, his justifications are extremely weak and consist of one hand of usage of fuzzy facts and questionable analogies, on the other putting forward radical, absurd recommendations  ("Spend less", "Follow, don't lead", "Focus on vulnerabilities, not opportunities" and "move to utility-based 'in the cloud' computing")  which can hurt anybody who trusts them or, worse, tries blindly adopt them.

The irony of Carr's position is that for the five years since the publication of his HBR article local datacenters actually flourished and until 2008 had shown no signs of impeding demise. In 2008 credit crush hit data centers hard, but they are just collateral damage of the financial storm.  From 2003 to 2008 Data Centers experienced just another technological reorganization which increased role of Intel computers in the datacenter including appearance of blades, as alternatives to small to midrange servers, virtualization, wireless technologies and distributed computing (clusters). Moreover while there was some trend to the consolidation of datacenters within the large companies, the new power of laptops make "in the cloud" services promise pretty fuzzy as in no way remote datacenter can provide the same amount computer power as modern laptops. While perfect for such services as email, and (to lesser extent) Web browsing and in general, media consumption (which success of iPad demonstrated so vividly), for any computationally intensive application (for example, spreadsheets) promise of cloud computing become much less attractive, unless what we mean under the term is "application delivery". Security issues related to the move to private cloud are mindboggling. In May 2012 IBM has forbidden its employees from using cloud-based services such as Siri, Dropbox and iCloud.[IBM's Ban]. Revealed in June 2013 Prism program puts large cloud providers such as Facebook, Google and Yahoo in the black list for any person interested in maintaining at lease minimal level of privacy still possible within the limits of current technology. 

The author argues that the level of hype about "cloud computing" makes prudent treating all promoters of this interesting new technology, especially those who severely lack technical depth, with extreme skepticism. The key problem is that along with technical challenges Carr does not understand, in the cloud" services present huge threat to security and privacy.  Also monopolization by cloud providers like Google of email and other services present a serious challenge to people's privacy. They are supposed to provide us with the best search. Now they are everywhere: maps, shopping, trying to kill Expedia and the rest of the travel sites. Pretty soon there won't be anyone out there to buy from, to do some price comparisons, or bookings options. Just Google. That's spooky.

Contrary to Carr prognostications the driving force behind the cloud is the desire to synchronize and access data from several PCs people own (desktop and laptop), smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices. In other words to access your own data from multiple devices.  The first such application, ability to view corporate e-mail from the cell phone, essentially launched Blackberry smartphones into prominence. 

Junk science is and always was based on cherry-picked evidence which has carefully been selected or edited to support a pre-selected "truth".  Facts that are not fit are suppressed in best obscurantist traditions. This article tries to present the other side of the story.


Introduction

 "Ignorance is often not merely the absence of knowledge
but an outcome of cultural and political struggle."

Londa Schiebinger

Like a good Slashdot troll the slogan "IT does not matter" is catchy, provocative, and wrong.  In his article "IT does not matter", published in the May 2003 edition of the Harvard Business Review Nicholas Carr (WOW, this guy somehow managed to get a huge Wikipedia entry !) declared that information technology inevitably going the way of the railroads, the telegraph and electricity networks.

Along with this revelation, he made several pretty bizarre predictions:

It appears that in order to attract readers (and parasite on outsourcing trend) Carr shaped his arguments mainly in terms of difference and opposition, almost as though any notion of traditional IT had to be rejected and the opposite (outsourcing friendly, cloud friendly) view embraced. But in no way simplistic opposition to traditional IT gives any validity to his views. On the contrary his views are more detached from reality that notion of traditional datacenter is. He also completely missed (or was unable to understand due to absence of relevant knowledge) huge threat to security and privacy that in the cloud providers entail.

We will try to prove in this paper,  that each and every of Carr's postulates is pseudoscience, belonging to the same category as astrology, UFOs, and creationism.  Especially the latter.

His article as well as two subsequent books are perfect examples, almost masterpieces of incompetent, self-deluding, self-serving obscurantism applied to information technology.  I am using the term "obscurantism" here in the meaning close to one of the meanings of the term provided by Wikipedia :

In the 19th and 20th centuries "obscurantism" became a polemical term accusing authors of writing in a deliberately vague and abstruse style in order to hide their vacuousness: the writer's ignorance is obscured.

Unfortunately Carr oversimplified and sensationalist hypothesis was rather uncritically met by mainstream press. since the publication of his HRB article he was regularly invited to say outrageous things in stylish phrases on IT conferences. 

His proselytizing of "IT does not matter" fallacy has granted him something like the status of a household name. But why does this nice gentleman seem to simultaneously attract and repel/annoy so many people? It may be the style of writings, as he is definitely a gifted writer, ably combining plausible nonsense about IT with an eye for the drama necessary for a big story. Or because he serves a useful for business role of an intellectual shock troop of the outsourcing movement. 

This article is an attempt to analyze the main parts of his framework ( "(local) IT does not matter" and  "Everything should be done via the cloud" ) as well as the recommendations which he provides ("Spend less", "Follow, don't lead", "Focus on vulnerabilities, not opportunities" and "move to utility-based "in the cloud" computing) five years after he published his HRB article. In way it is a late attempt to call a spade a spade and debunk propagated by Carr myths.

Carr pushes his hypothesis of inevitable switch to utility computing (based on nothing but superficial analogy with railways, telegraph and electricity networks) in the following way: 

It’s no surprise, given these characteristics, that IT’s evolution has closely mirrored that of earlier infrastructural technologies.

... ... ...

The arrival of the Internet has accelerated the commoditization of IT by providing a perfect delivery channel for generic applications. More and more, companies will fulfill their IT requirements simply by purchasing fee-based “Web services” from third parties – similar to the way they currently buy electric power or telecommunications services.

... ... ...

From a strategic standpoint, they became invisible; they no longer mattered. That is exactly what is happening to information technology today, and the implications for corporate IT management are profound.

He also formulated all-encompassing "New Rules for IT Management", no more, no less:

With the opportunities for gaining strategic advantage from information technology rapidly disappearing, many companies will want to take a hard look at how they invest in IT and manage their systems. As a starting point, here are three guidelines for the future:

All three key recommendations listed above are extremely unprofessional and naive:

The key idea (actually a fallacy) of Carr's article and two books is absolutization of one of interesting (among several others) technical trend and arbitrary, not based on any competent analyses of the situation declaration that this trend is the future of IT.  Being a gifted business writer, in case were  Carr knows something about an industry, for example publishing ,  he usually comes out with some interesting and relevant observations (see, for example, his remarks about Wikipedia). But as for the key IT topics, his alarming lack of competence is evident  and no amount of writing skills (and again, he is a gifted writer; that fact cannot be denied) can disguise that. That's why he ends up confusing the reader (and probably himself).  The problem with incompetent, but prolific and aggressive writers (graphomans)  acquiring undue influence along with pseudo-guru status  is one of observations about Wikipedia made by Carr. The same problem is perfectly applicable to his own writing. As a result, as Carr correctly stated, "Small points get blown out of proportion - particularly those subject to debate - while big points get expressed poorly or glossed over."

Small points get blown out of proportion - particularly those subject to debate - while big points get expressed poorly or glossed over.

Carr outright dismissal of the relevance of local IT datacenters and waxing lyrical about "in the cloud" service providers (new utilities) is the worst type of primitive, incompetent IT Utopism. While "in the cloud" service providers represent one of several important technical trends and are useful for certain services (especially for one time computationally intensive tasks and testing) they are not panacea from all IT ills. Moreover "in the cloud" software service providers (or WAN-based distributed computing in more technical terms), have a lot more problems than many people realize, especially when they're under the influence of vendors' cozy brochures or articles like Carr's. 

Carr can approach IT only as a sociologist; he does not have any real understanding of technologies involved. And he should probably stick to sociology, as he knows absolutely nothing about enterprise IT and complex tradeoff it involves.  But unfortunately he discovered a gold mine as his musings can serve as a justification of outsourcing and he milked his initial controversy with two of his subsequent books and multiple appearances. 

Carr can approach IT only as a sociologist; he does not have real understanding of technologies involved. And he should probably stick to sociology, as he knows nothing about enterprise IT

Due to the timing (end of dot-com bubble deflation) Carr oversimplified and sensationalist hypothesis became the fig leaf for justifying outsourcing. Carr himself soon became "traveling snake oil salesman" of sort. I think that the resurgence of religious fundamentalism and  "IT does not matter" fallacy has common foundation -- modern culture (not necessary only American, despite a long tradition of anti-intellectualism in the country) devalues knowledge and rationalism. While junk-science and a celebrity-focused culture might be financed by defenders of status quo, with "IT denialism" the reality is more complex. Carr understood all too well that promoters of miracle diets (corporate IT diet in this case) do well in the current environment and he just could not resist the temptation to milk the cow (although judging from the level of discounting of his used books on Amazon both his subsequent books proved to be paperweights)... 

Carr grossly undervalued complexity of IT and the value of IQ in IT. Without local IQ it is impossible to copy technological advances, so Carr's statement "the article argues is that we're at the point where any technological improvement in the management of information will be quickly and broadly copied, rendering it meaningless for competitive advantage" is both wrong and extremely misleading.  For example Snort is an zero-cost (open source) IDS. But the way, for example, I implement Snort cannot be replicated by other companies which do not have specialist of my caliber and thus they are unable to replicate the comparative advantage, despite availability of technology (and plain vanilla implementation actually provides comparative disadvantage, not enhancing security but creating an illusion of security ;-).   The same thinking can be applied to Tivoli, OpenView,  SAP/R3, Solaris and other complex products which require certification of specialists.  Quoting a Microsoft executive: "the source of competitive advantage in business is what you do with the information that technology gives you access to." I would add that it also matters how you do it, what particular combination of technologies you use to achieve particular goals.   In a way IT is part of the IQ and nerve system of modern organizations and weakening it has the same effect as weakening of brain functions and nerve system of living organisms.

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