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The ‘World Wide Computer’

It was in early 2005 that representatives of an outfit called Design LLC trekked to The Dalles, Ore. They entered into quiet negotiations with local officials for a 30-acre parcel of land on the banks of the Columbia River. Reports later emerged, writes Nicholas G. Carr, former editor of The Harvard Business Review, that Design was working on behalf of Google (GOOG). On that piece of land, the search giant would build one of its massive data centers. Fueled by cheap hydropower and cooled in part by icy river water, this center would fit into a huge networked complex of computing power. As companies like Google, Microsoft (MSFT), and Amazon.com (AMZN) are erecting such centers from the Carolinas to Siberia, they’re creating a new form of utility. Together they form a giant computing grid that promises to deliver the vast digital universe to scientific labs, companies, and homes in the decades ahead. But in his thoughtful book The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google, Carr warns this trend could herald a new, darker phase for the Internet—one where these mega-networks could eventually operate as a fearsome entity that will dominate our lives. He dubs it “the World Wide Computer.”

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