Cloud Computing: Seeding for the Coming Storm

We’re being led to believe that nearly everything would be better with the cloud in control of all our data. What could go wrong with a world in which we don’t own anything, anymore?

As we pulled out of the motel parking lot, I was still trying to shake the cobwebs from my head. Our trip to Ann Arbor – a fact- and apartment-finding mission for my fiancee’s sister, who would be moving there with her law school-bound boyfriend in the fall – had been a partial success, one which involved a ridiculously friendly cab driver, an Earth Day hippie hoedown, and some ill-advised tequila shots. It almost felt like college again, right down to the overwhelming urge to go back to bed.

Standing between me and that soft, horizontal reward was a four-hour drive back to Chicago, a trek that seemed all the more insurmountable once we confronted the thick fog of that early Sunday morning. Maybe the ominous weather dulled my sense of humor – or maybe the fact that I hadn’t had my Egg McMuffin yet slowed my reaction time -- but as we rolled through the mist, it was the boyfriend, Pete, who delivered the perfect line: “We’re in the cloud.”

Like pretty much everyone else, we’d had the mythical “cloud” on our minds of late. Cloud computing -- “internet-based computing, whereby shared resources, software and information are provided to computers and other devices on-demand” (Wikipedia) -- was to be our savior, according to all the experts. No more would we have to clutter our lives with all the files and software we required -- it would all be “in the cloud”, waiting for us to pluck it from the heavens when we needed it.

The utility of this thing-free existence we're growing accustomed to has proven itself through a variety of services, from shareable Google docs to Netflix instant viewing to the book-eliminating Amazon Kindle (more on this later). Now, as the idea -- not a particularly new one -- has reached critical mass, we’ve been led to believe that nearly everything would be better with the cloud in control. (Got some furniture you don’t use very often? Toss it in the cloud ‘til the in-laws come by.)

This sounds great to those of us who would like to live a minimalist existence involving less responsibility and greater flexibility. What could go wrong with a world in which we don’t own anything ourselves, but rather entrust it all to some larger force? Believe it or not, there are some pretty strong cautions about cloud computing, most relating to privacy of personal data (see this 2009 World Privacy Forum report, an open letter to Google regarding security of its services, and the recently drafted internet privacy legislation in Congress). There’s also the issue over who has control of the information and data that users can pull from the cloud.

You may recall the hubbub that arose last year when Amazon remotely deleted some digital editions of George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm from Kindle users’ devices after learning that the books were published on the system by someone who did not own the rights. Amazon’s actions, while perhaps legally justifiable, inspired much consternation among users, who considered the books they downloaded to be personal property that could not be taken back from them without their consent. Following the episode (and subsequent lawsuit), the company clarified its deletion policy, while still reserving the right to erase titles in certain circumstances.

I’m not a Kindle owner, though my hesitations are more aesthetic than Orwellian -- I like the look and feel of actual books. As for all the social media floating out there in the stratosphere, I tend to believe that the privacy ship has already sailed; most people can find out pretty much anything they want to know about me with little effort. So despite the concerns of all the things 'out there', I’ve still been pretty enthralled by the possibilities of the cloud.

That is, until I opened my email one day and saw this message: “Lala will be discontinued as of May 31st.” Seems that the music-streaming service -- which provides access to millions of songs and enables the creation of shareable playlists -- was recently bought by Apple, which may have plans to use its technology to help create a cloud-based iTunes store.

I was actually notified about the shutdown three separate times – once for my personal account, once for my work account, and once by PopMatters, which has been enhancing its content with the shareable song capability LaLa so wonderfully provided. While I knew there were other options for my personal music access, I was a little miffed that the “web songs” I’d purchased for the purposes of streaming on my company’s website -- at a price of ten cents each -- would soon no longer be available for me to use. My resulting iTunes credit would barely buy a couple of songs, and even if I could get everything back, I’d still lose the playlist capability I’d come to appreciate.

It’s worthwhile to note that had I downloaded the songs instead of purchasing the streaming versions, my collection would still be intact -- of course, it also would’ve been more expensive (89 cents a pop) and based on what I planned to do with the music, the extra cost didn’t seem worth it. By choosing the web songs, I’d essentially swapped control and ownership for convenience -- a common trade-off of cloud-based services – and ended up paying the price.

In a related development, I’ve recently been indulging my long-suppressed desire for physical musical objects, thanks to the acquisition of a used record player for my apartment (thanks, Brian!). It took only a few hours for me to begin hounding the local record stores and resale shops in my neighborhood for additions to my LP collection. it took only seconds to re-discover the joy of holding, purchasing and, yes, owning my music. No matter what happens in the fast-paced world of corporate acquisitions, no one can take away my original soundtrack to American Hot Wax (they’d have to pry it my from my cold, dead hands). I take some solace in that.

That drive home from Ann Arbor was hell, by the way, with several instances of near-zero visibility thanks to torrential downpours. By the time we made it back home, I was ready to purchase a lifetime supply of Rain-X for my girlfriend’s car, not to mention a jumbo bloody mary. My point? While there’s little doubt that the cloud has the potential to be a solution to many problems, there are also clear risks and drawbacks associated with its wide application. As we continue on the journey, we’d better be prepared for an inevitable storm.

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