Technology

What's the Value of Ownership in the Age of Cloud Computing?

My fiancée and I will soon move across the country with whatever will fit in our Honda Civic. This has brought up some discussions about which possessions are truly worth keeping.

"What is this obsession people have with books? They put them in their houses like they're trophies. What do you need it for after you read it?"

This quote from the ever-curious Jerry Seinfeld is particularly applicable to my life right now (which is weird, because usually it's George's wisdom that I find most relevant). This summer, in the span of a few weeks, I'm getting married, starting a new job (hopefully) and leaving my adopted hometown of Chicago to head east to Boston.

As part of this crazy plan, my fiancée and I are aiming to move with as few possessions as possible – just what will fit in our Honda Civic. This has brought up some discussions about what things of ours are truly worth keeping.

Take books, for example: unlike many people we know, who have shelves full of their favorite titles prominently displayed in their apartments, we have a couple of small shelves tucked away and have plans to donate a good portion of them before we move. This latest blow to our collection pretty much ensures that our new home won't feature a wall of books like the one I grew up with. We both wonder, should we care? Does it make us seem uneducated or uninterested to visitors? Or are we just practical -- not to mention ahead of our time -- given the inevitable move to electronic libraries?

The truth is, I haven't bought more than a handful of books over the last few years. While there's definitely something nice about owning a book instead of renting it (libraries always seem to get the ugliest, bulkiest editions), it's not something I'm willing to shell out cash for, especially when I'm not sure it's going to be good. When I buy a book, I like to think it's one I'll read more than once, or at least refer back to; I'm definitely more of a hoarder in this respect than Angela, who almost immediately passes along good reads to friends and family upon completion. There's no way I'll give up all my books, but it won't be that much of a challenge to let go of a significant percentage of my library.

Now, my CDs, that's another issue entirely. My music collection currently sits in several overstuffed CD storage books and one large plastic crate in a corner of my bedroom, taking up real estate as it has in my previous three apartments. I certainly have no desire to show it off, trophy-style, as I noticed a friend has in his apartment; though I may be proud of my collection, CDs have never really lent themselves to prominent display.

But that doesn't mean I can easily separate myself from something I built over 15-plus painstaking years. First I have to preserve it, disc by slowly ripped disc. While many of my CDs were uploaded to my old computer to then be transferred to my old iPod, both these devices are now useless. I’m back at square one, and I have some tough decisions to make unless I want to spend the next few months sitting in front of Angela’s MacBook (my own laptop’s CD drive broke about a month ago and I haven’t deemed it worth replacing, a sure sign that the discs’ days were numbered).

Choosing which albums are worth saving has been a fun process that's reminded me why I put so much importance on physical music objects in the first place – sorting through digital files isn’t nearly as rewarding. But it’s also made me never want to go through such an undertaking again – which is why I might finally be ready to move to the cloud.

Regular readers of this column may remember that I'm more than a little wary of cloud-based services that aim to free consumers from the hassle of actually owning and running software, apps, and files from their local hard drives. The concept's nothing new, but it's become a point of focus for music fans recently, thanks to the launch of Amazon's Cloud Drive and, more recently, Google Music (as I write, plans for the Apple entry are taking shape).

The Google and Amazon models are pretty similar -- neither has a deal with any major record labels, so the main service it offers is the ability to upload your own file collection (for Google it's music only, while Amazon accepts more file types) to large central servers for easy access via web-based apps. Apple, having secured partnerships with the big music-industry players, and Business Insider reports that this will give users the ability to scan their existing collections for legally purchased music, which will then be replicated on the servers and save hours of uploading time.

Regardless of the provider and the options, though, cloud-based music services have their drawbacks. The biggest concern is the loss of true ownership over what were once personal files. Forget tangible storage mediums; in the cloud, you won’t even know where your hard-earned collection is stored – so is it really “yours” anymore? In a recent Wired article discussing the impact of the recently announced Google Chromebook -- a laptop that runs completely using cloud-based apps -- on music fans, Eliot van Buskirk writes that “the future of music collecting lies in access, not storage.”

This new reality seems to make the act of collecting less satisfying; 'access' is not something you can put in a trophy case. When music is both everywhere and nowhere at the same time, what is the point of trying to lay claim to a piece of it? Now, it seems, playing a song in your collection will be no different from streaming something from Grooveshark or YouTube or, for that matter, a jukebox in a bar. If music taste is a part of personality – and I suppose that’s debatable – cloud-based music would seem to limit our connection to that part. Another way to look at it, of course, is that such services actually expand our ability to make our choices heard, as those music collections formerly tethered to hard drives and even iPods can now be freely accessed anywhere, anytime. You don’t have to wait to get home to share the new song that defines you (or even the one that you just recorded) – it’s available wherever you are.

Music’s ever-increasing ubiquity raises another concern, though, according to PopMatters’ own Rob Horning. In a recent “Marginal Utility” post, he writes that “the transformation of hard-to-lug collections into ephemeral lists” actually intensifies “the circulation of music as a commodity,” something that began with the first recorded tracks. As our music tastes and habits become part of the cloud (particularly the Google cloud), they become more fodder for marketers. Music becomes information that we offer up about ourselves, and presumably leads to ever more personalized pitches.

But does this ultimately change the listening experience for the average user? Probably not – and I’d argue that the use of music taste as a method of self-presentation is not unique to the cloud; those long lists of favorite bands on MySpace essentially served the same purpose, even if users weren’t actually ceding recordings to the site. I feel like I’ve been creating a marketing profile for as long as I’ve had an outlet to profess my opinions.

Ultimately, this comes down to a matter of needs. As much as cloud services might stress me out intellectually, the reality is that they help to solve a present problem or desire (Facebook users confront a similar internal battle as they balance social interests and privacy concerns). I may come to regret the move to the cloud and the way that it affects my relationship with music -- but right now, I can't find a good enough reason not to do it. So I'll give up most of my beloved CDs with relative confidence that I'll be able to enjoy them in some form in our new apartment. If only we could do the same thing with our furniture.

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