Carr’s predictions vary in plausibility. Overall, though, they can be separated into two categories: on the one hand, futuristic scenarios that may or may not tip over into reality; on the other, scenarios that amount to what the great political economist Peter Drucker called “the future that has already happened.” Drucker, who died in 2005, used to maintain that while trying to predict the future was pointless, it was possible to identify ongoing trends that would have significant future effects.
Drucker described his modus operandi thus: “I look out the window at things that are going on, things that have already happened that people pay no attention to.” That methodology led Drucker to the conclusion that the Knowledge Economy was succeeding the Industrial, with the obvious collateral being the rise of the knowledge worker, a term Drucker was the first to use. When Nicholas Carr wrote “IT Doesn’t Matter,” he was doing Drucker’s kind of analysis, looking out the window and identifying a future that had already happened.
In his latest book, Carr has extrapolated similarly from ongoing trends. At many small to midsize companies, not a few executives will be thinking, “We could reduce the IT department to one or two people.” IT is a cost center, after all, not so dissimilar from janitorial and cafeteria services, both of which have long been outsourced at most enterprises. Security concerns won’t necessarily prevent companies from wholesale outsourcing of data services: businesses have long outsourced payroll and customer data to trusted providers. Much will depend on the specific company, of course, but it’s unlikely that smaller enterprises will resist the economic logic of utility computing. Bigger corporations will simply take longer to make the shift.
Though some IT managers will retrain and find work in the new data centers, such places will offer fewer jobs than they displace: for instance, informed accounts place the number of employees at Google’s flagship data center in Oregon at only around 200. Similarly, entrepreneurially inclined IT managers may join startups developing innovative technologies. Again, though, the opportunities will be limited: most aspiring entrepreneurs fail. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that many IT managers–the emblematic
category of knowledge worker, long assumed to be safe from the technologically fueled economic disruptions that have eliminated so many jobs–will probably lose their livelihoods.
Mark Williams, a contributing editor for Technology Review, lives in Oakland, CA.