Some of you may have never heard the term "cloud computing" before, but I guarantee you've all partaken in it. Basically it's a pretty simple concept: instead of running applications off of or storing data onto your local hard drive on your personal computer, you use the internet (cloud) to access online applications and storage. There are literally thousands of examples, such as Google Apps, Sendspace, Mozy.com and countless others services that many of us use everyday due to their overall convenience and nominal fees. (Google Apps even goes so far as to hype themselves as having improved security and reliability over local networks.) An additional benefit of the cloud model is that the user can get access to whatever they need from any computer workstation that's connected to the internet, since everything resides on centralized servers. (More on that later.)
So what's the downside then? Don't we all desire solutions that are cheap, easy and flexible? Well to get to the bottom of that, let's feather our mullets and do a quick time warp back to the 1980s: I'd like to use music/ sound recording as my example here since that's something we all dig, even though this lesson applies to all technologies. Anyway, as you may recall reading in one of my recent blog post here, I was a mere thirteen years old in 1988 and my favorite band back then was Megadeth. Their new album So Far, So Good, So What?! was burning a hole in my skull at the time, mainly because I was listening to it on my Sony Cassette Walkman while riding my bike around the 'burbs looking for trouble. What the hell does any of this have to do with the future of the internet you ask? Well hold tight and you'll get your answer.
Anyway Megadeth, being a good old school thrash band, recorded their music to analog tape, in which an electro-magnet applies magnetic flux to ferric oxide powder contained on the tape itself in order to encode the audio. The tape would "remember" this flux and convert the electromagnetic signal back into audio upon playback, via any loudspeakers that were connected to a tape machine. These studio master tapes would be dubbed down at a factory to thousands of tiny cassette tapes that were then distributed to rack job retailers such as the Sound Warehouse in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, where a certain young man would fatefully buy his first Megadeth tape sometime in late 1987.
The important thing here is, despite a distinct drop in fidelity between the master tapes and the cassette that I purchased that day (due to the width of the tape within the cassette itself), what I received was otherwise an EXACT COPY of what the band had cut in the studio. Furthermore, just as Megadeth's label got to keep their master tapes, I too got to retain ownership and possession of my little cassette copy, and I could even make copies off of it to give to my friends, courtesy of my dual cassette deck. (Bet you forgot all about those bad boys, didn't you?!)
But around this same time a different method of recording and distribution was really beginning to catch on. Yes folks, we're talking about digital. Instead of recording to analog tape, suddenly studios began to switch over to digital tape as a means of storage, again due to flexibility and ease of use. And instead of quaint little records or cassettes for the general public, we were introduced to THE COMPACT DISC ("perfect sound forever!"). Gone were the days of crackly records and hissy tapes, we were told. Now get out there and support America by re-buying every album you own!
All well and good then, except for the inconvenient truth that the initial hype surrounding digital recording and distribution was nothing short of a conspiracy to bilk music lovers out of their hard earned dough. Far from being perfect sound, digital tape did not record every nuance of the music the way analog tape did; it merely "sampled" what the artist was playing at regular increments and relied upon fancy algorithms to fill in the rest. (Learn more about sample and bitrates here.) Digital employed a process called PCM (Pulse Code Modulation) to convert these samples to binary data (zeroes and ones) that was then burned directly onto compact discs by a laser screening process. These CDs were then distributed to those same rack jobbers that we all used to buy our records and tapes at. Nobody complained and the World went wild for the convenient new format.
Now I probably don't need to tell anyone here that most early digital recordings sucked balls from an audio perspective. Indeed, any CD from the Eighties with the dreaded DDD emblem on the back was something you did not want to get involved with, even back then. This is largely because of crappy A/D (Analog to Digital) converters and low sample rates used in early digital studio setups. This would inevitably improve as technology progressed, and by the late Nineties as the concept of recording direct to hard disk became a reality, audio bit rates began to increase and studios started to shrink. By the turn of the decade it was suddenly commonplace for musicians to record entire albums at home using multi-track sound editing software, and even to burn their own CDs using CD-R drives.
With the mainstreaming of broadband internet in the early 2000s, the final piece of the puzzle was complete, as the amateur musician could now not only record his entire album at home, by himself, but he could also easily promote and distribute it online via Myspace, iTunes, CDBaby or seemingly a million other sites. It was nothing less than a full scale revolution, and probably the best thing to happen to music since the advent of magnetic tape. Likewise, these advances that I've just discussed have been paralleled in nearly every field, but specifically in movies and literature where online distribution has completely changed the way the game is played. For movies, independent directors can simply upload their films to hosting sites such as Youtube, while authors can either publish DRM-free .pdf files of their work for readers to sample, or attempt to sell it for a profit via such new DRM enabled text readers as Amazon's Kindle.
Now we are at the precipice of another digital revolution, centered cheifly around Google's soon-to-be-released Chrome operating system. The basic concept behind Google's OS is this: Microsoft's Windows has become bloated and obsolete because people don't want a slow, expensive OS, they don't want to shell out money for additional software, and they don't want to worry about their hard drive crashing and taking all their data with it. Google wants to give you a free OS that will run on any cheap notebook computer with a minimum of necessary hardware and disk space, that will also load quickly and have a web browser built directly into the desktop. Once on the internet, you'll have access to a wide range of free web-based software and plenty of storage space to upload all your docs, images and music files. And you'll never have to worry about where you stored that picture of you and Aunt Francine at Cousin Paddy's 16th birthday because Google's awesomely intuitive search feature will find that shit for you instantly. Finally, stress-free computing for the masses!
But there's one significant problem with Google's plan for World domination, and it's what I keep coming back to late at night when I tend to dwell on this kind of stuff. By uploading our docs, our images, our music and movies, our lives to Google's servers, they no longer remain ours. All of our beloved content, for better or worse, becomes property of Google; perhaps not legally speaking, but technically it's still all theirs. Maybe you've already sold off most of your books and CDs, dumped your DVDs and tossed your old photo albums aside in exchange for a bunch of zeroes and ones. Ask yourself then, if and when all your priceless stuff resides on their hard drives and not yours, who do you think really has control of it? The album you've been painstakingly re-recording; all your irreplaceable home movies; your blog you've been updating bi-weekly for the last three years-- They'll try to assure you that the data is secure and yours to do what you want with, just as the RIAA tried to assure you that CDs sounded better than real audio recordings and would last you a lifetime. My advice is not to fall for it. The signs are out there already if you look for them.
ITEM: Amazon CEO apologizes for remote deletion of Orwell's 1984 from users' Kindle devices. Still won't disclose what other dirty tricks the Kindle is capable of.
ITEM: AT&T technician blows whistle on illegal NSA National surveillance program.
ITEM: Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig predicts internet i-9/11.
ITEM: Man locked out of Google account; no explanation given.
ITEM: Federal Judge orders Google to surrender YouTube user data to Viacom.
ITEM: Google as Big Brother-- what do they do with all that data exactly?
Look, there's no way I can say with certainty that the shadow government is in cahoots with Google and Amazon to control the world's information and peoples' access to it, but after reading articles like the ones I just posted, sometimes it's hard to believe otherwise. Obviously the convenience of cloud computing is hard to resist for some (I'm certainly not immune to it-- just look at who my blog provider is!), but if you truly value your information/media/content, it behooves you to take precautions to ensure that it remains yours. Here's some good first steps you can take:
●Hang on to all your "obsolete" physical media-- books, DVDs, CDs (vinyl even better of course!)
●Store all of your digital content on your own hard drives, and do physical on-premises backups instead of using cloud services such as mozy.com.
●Consider investing in your own email server.
●Just say "no!" to DRM-encrypted devices such as the Kindle that do not let you retain ownership of the media you paid for.
●Boycott the RIAA, MPAA and any other organizations that bribe politicians to pass unfair laws and deny you your Constitutional rights.
●Support the good work many are doing at the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
●Most importantly, keep tabs on your elected officials and don't support anyone who's voted against net nutrality laws or taken bribe money from the anti-freedom lobbyists.
Hey, I love the internet. It's probably the greatest technological advancement of my lifetime, and it's responsible for making me about a thousand times smarter than I would probably be otherwise, because it provides me with a world of information at the click of a mouse. If you feel as strongly I do, let's continue the fight to keep cyberspace as a vital force for good in our World.