The Cloud as a Modern-Day Alexandrian Library

Posted: June 9, 2011 in Uncategorized
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I’ve been reading and talking a lot about cloud computing a lot lately.  I have some mixed feelings about it and have been trying to sort out the role it will play in my life.

Of course, I already use cloud computing much more than I ever really had thought about–all throughout my undergrad and some post-bac classes, my solution for not having a printer or for sometimes doing school work on computers at school was just to email stuff to myself.  When Gmail came on the scene with it’s lack of storage limits, this was made easier to rely on, since I could now actually store things in my email for later reference.  Every time I am applying for jobs and need to get cover letters, resumes and references together, I find myself accessing my resume to update from the most recent job applications I sent in electronically and I search old cover letters (usually stored as emails, even, not documents) for inspiration.  Mind you, I generally have the “real” files for the resumes on my hard drive, so in that way, my email is more of an indexing tool of sorts, but I don’t usually own copies of the cover letters on my hard drive.

I’ve also learned that cloud computing can be a great tool for file sharing—the fact that it allows users on different computers to access and edit the same document at the same time is an extremely useful tool for business, community organizing and other group work. I will add, that experience using these programs would suggest that it’s a better idea than actual tool at this point, as the actual software that Google Docs and SkyDrive (the only two programs I’ve used) use is not that good, but this is almost beyond the point, as it will, no doubt, improve over the next few years. But the point is, I’ve used it for this purpose and have found it to be of great value.

So I don’t feel like I can, at all, just talk about cloud computing as something I am not part of or anything like that.

The thing I have been thinking about and calling into question lately, though, is discussed pretty well in an article I just read titled, The day that Google Died, by Thomas Frey (by the way, I now follow him on twitter and read his blog all the time–great articles and definitely a go-to source for information on technology and culture now).  In the article, Frey presents this hypothetical scenario in which Google gets wiped out entirely and is just gone (he mentions that although it’s hypothetical, it’s not totally unthinkable that this could happen).  He explores the chaos that would ensue. If we thought the destruction of the Alexandrian Library was an unimaginable loss, try to picture the fiery post-apocalyptic mayhem that would ensue if Google went up in a puff of smoke.

One important point he brings up is that currently, the majority (he doesn’t give figures) of the “humanity’s data” is owned (in a physical sense, in that they have the actual data stored on servers they own, so I don’t think we’re talking about intellectual property) by multinational corporate superpowers including Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, Amazon, Apple and IBM—who don’t really subscribe to the same professional ethics as librarians, journalists, and other professionals who deal with the dissemination and preservation of information.

Sounds a whole lot more dangerous to think of it like that than the simple thought of, “it would be so much simpler to just keep this in a cloud where I can just get it from the internet whenever.”

I’m probably not going to kid myself that the information I have stored in computer based formats (whether it’s in the cloud, on my hard drive, on my thumb drive, or all of the above) is so sensitive and important that Google (or whoever) is going to specifically target me and delete my files based on content (although they could do that if they wanted to, and they could probably accomplish this through a relatively simple query based on search terms or other criteria), but it is true that they are not the ones really hurting if I lose my stuff. An organization I’m involved in just learned a valuable lesson when our entire archive was lost through some mishap with Google Docs, since it was all stored in their cloud. The cloud can eat your homework the same way your dog can.

That really sucks for the organization, but it sucks even more to think about it in the context of information storage in general. The move towards cloud computing is a move towards voluntarily giving up ownership of our own information and giving software giants ownership over not only our public record (which they pretty much have already—that’s why librarians are more important than ever!), but also our personal records.

This all makes me recall when I was in 6th grade and the “mean” computer teacher (who was actually my dad, and not mean at all, for the record!) taught us all a valuable lesson about taking responsibility for the storage and ownership of our information. He did this by periodically flipping a light switch that shut down all the computers in the whole lab, wiping out the work of anyone who hadn’t saved. Students got mad, frustrated, had mini breakdowns and outbursts, but ultimately learned that it doesn’t do us any good to blame the person (or computer) who wiped out our hard work—if we don’t take ownership and responsibility for our computer files, but rather trust a machine or program with this task, we sometimes get screwed over.

I don’t think there’s any way we are going to just stop the movement towards cloud computing, it has already arrived, but I do think we have a responsibility to understand the risks (as well as the benefits) it presents. The next generation of information professionals (and “mean” computer teachers!) need to take caution to educate our patrons on the importance of owning control over our information—though maybe we should leave the flipping of switches and such to the 6th grade teachers. That way, we can help prepare our communities to not be those hardest hit by the theoretical post-Google apocalypse.

(File, save to hard drive, select all, copy, paste in blog, post)

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  1. mikeb says:

    I’ve spent the last 18 months of my life working on cloud computing research, standards work, and detailed product development, so excuse the rant 😉

    *1* aspect of cloud computing is consumer oriented hosted software. The agreements you accept when you sign up for most of these services basically says that they owe you nothing. This is why I run scripts on my home servers which backup my Google Mail every hour. This is why I export a caldav view of my Google Calendar, this is why I replicate my Facebook picture structure in iPhoto. If these services die, I lose nothing.

    However, cloud computing is sold to businesses with strict SLAs, data retention policies, indemnity clauses and just about every other protection known for data retention and ownership. Cloud computing also doesn’t just mean a piece of software ran on a server across a network, there are many other aspects. Take a read at the NIST’s attempt to define it, which is done pretty well (start on PDF page 6, focus on SaaS, PaaS, and IaaS);

    http://csrc.nist.gov/publications/drafts/800-145/Draft-SP-800-145_cloud-definition.pdf

    You are right that it’s scary the amount of folks that don’t realize how these consumer services offer them no protection. Even services that you pay for like Flickr Pro offer you no guarantee for data retention. The Internet has a few good stories of people’s Flickr albums being wiped out permanently. Education and backup is important!

    Also – I use Google Docs with my employees to let us take notes during meetings as a collective group. It makes our notes far more accurate, it makes our thoughts more clear, and we leave conversations with a better understanding in a shorter amount of time. I love the collaborative document editing, but it does have plenty of shortcomings as well in the overall package. Here is a good video showing something some of the capabilities we take advantage of; http://goo.gl/juzov

    • Jackson says:

      It’s great to know there are some standards/a contract when it comes to business stuff.

      it sounds like you go through a lot of trouble to back up your cloud based computer stuff. I don’t think most users would think to do that or (in my case) might be interested in doing that on a large scale like it sounds like you’re doing, but would have no idea how to do something that complicated, so just back up the stuff that really matters to us. It seems like there should be user-friendly software that does all the stuff you say you do automatically that is no harder to install than anti-virus software or something.

      I have also heard that there are some open source programs that let you host a cloud on your own computer. that sounds like a bit much for the average user, but maybe would be a good thing for businesses who want the benefits more control.

      I liked the video about google docs. that is totally the kind of stuff that I want to be able to use cloud computing for. In my personal experience, it totally does not look like that, but maybe it’s best for taking notes at this point and not trying to do actual word processing with another person, rather than use it as more of a place to compile ideas. I don’t know, I see the possibilities. For that purpose, if I was doing a lot of hardcore, long term group work, I would be very interested in running something off of my own computer where the cloud is hosted off of my computer (not that I even know how to do that)–since i really just want it as a tool at this point.

      • Mike B says:

        There are various services out there that will help you backup online services. Some are ran on your local computer, others are from third parties. I’ll admit my own ignorance as I have never really dove in to them in any detail. If you do find some good ones you should blog about it!

        In terms of open source software to run a “cloud on your own computer”, I would argue that such a statement is not a cloud at all! If you look at the definitions of cloud they include multi-tenant (if it’s just you it isn’t), and dynamically scalable (which your single computer can’t be by definition). However, many of the pieces of software that power today’s cloud providers are in fact open source software.

        Just a couple;

        PaaS – http://rubyonrails.org/ (Heroku) – http://hadoop.apache.org/ (Cloudera)
        IaaS – http://www.xen.org/ (a long list, including Rackspace and Amazon) / http://open.eucalyptus.com/ (mimics AWS)

        In terms of applications that are often hosted “in the cloud” for collaboration, I think wikis are probably the handiest open source software that you could run locally. The software that powers wikipedia ( http://www.mediawiki.org/ ) is something I spent some solid time using to create documentation/collaborative technical standards for my team with fairly positive results.

      • Jackson says:

        Thanks for all the info, Mike, that is really helpful!

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