There's been a lot of talk about the cloud lately. I'm not sure exactly when clouds came to represent noisy server farms thousands of miles away, but it's pretty much a done deal. From Amazon's Cloud Drive to Google's Cloud Print, we're well on our way to packing up our digital lives and moving them into distant digital time shares, rendering local mass storage all but obsolete for us end users.
I've been watching this great migration with a mixture of eagerness and dread. My eager side has already compelled me to use the cloud as repository for my e-mail (Gmail), photos (Picasa), videos (YouTube), calendars, and miscellaneous notes (Google Apps). Even data and software that doesn't belong to me, legally speaking, has become accessible on-demand from the cloud—movies and TV shows (Netflix) and computer games (Steam). For the most part, I've enjoyed the ride, and the sense of safety that accompanies decentralized storage is a good one.
However, this skyward momentum now has me grasping for the parachute strings, wondering whether to back out or go further, signing up for Cloud Drive and entrusting the cloud with all of my important personal and professional data—all 37.5GB of it. I'm also trying to figure out what to do once services like Google Music become available outside of the United States. Since I've shamefully failed to back up my music collection anytime recently, and my 41GB of assorted music is too voluminous to fit on a single disc or reasonably priced thumb drive, the cloud seems like the most sensible destination. I'm better about backing up important files, but the threat of a fire, robbery, or some other disaster that would destroy the original data and backups alike always looms.
The advantages of a complete transition are obvious. Local hardware failures (or lost backup media) need no longer be accompanied by data loss or followed by painstaking data recovery. That nagging voice at the back of my head telling me to buy an extra terabyte hard drive or two—because, well, the RAID-1 array that holds my important files now isn't a genuine backup method, is it?—could finally be silenced. Hard-drive purchases could even be rendered unnecessary. When all your data is in the cloud, a low-capacity solid-state drive ought to be all you need. There's also the obvious advantage of being able to access your data from any device, provided you've got the right login, password, and client software. In this age of ubiquitous computing, that might be the most compelling benefit of all. Being able to search all of my work e-mail from my phone while out—either down in the street or in another country—is tremendously convenient.
A number of things need to happen before I can feel safe going all the way, though. Internet connections with faster upload speeds would be a start. My current cable service has a 50Mbps peak downstream speed, but the upstream is capped at 5Mbps. In practice, I'm lucky to push 500KB/s up the pipe. That just ain't fast enough to shift tens of gigabytes of data in a timely fashion. Less restrictive bandwidth quotas are a must, too, especially for those of us north of the border. If the Internet is to be my wine cellar, I can't very well be asked to pay a toll every time I carry up a bottle.
Other technical issues come to mind, like data loss in the cloud. Yes, it does happen. More redundancy and smarter software on the server end could all but eliminate that problem, and of course, cloud storage is probably quite a bit safer than a plain-old mechanical hard drive. However, users must have a way to retrieve their data and back it up manually, either on their own computer or through a third-party cloud service. Cloud storage becomes a liability when it's a one-way street.
A transition to the cloud also requires answers to some troubling questions. For instance, is there a strong enough legal framework to ensure the safety of personal data stored off-site? If someone's car can be legally considered an extension of their home, what about the piece of the Amazon server that stores their personal files? While I have nothing to hide other than embarrassing first drafts and unflattering vacation photos, I don't want my data to be handed over to whomever has the financial or political capital to demand it. U.S. or Canadian legislation might not be all I need to worry about, either, since the Internet is slowly eroding traditional Westphalian concepts.
What if, say, a Chinese mega-conglomerate acquires Amazon or Google a decade from now. What happens to my data then? Could a flight to Beijing for a press conference result in my arrest if the Chinese government snooped through my files weeks before and found something it didn't like? Heck, what if someone plants something in there to get me in trouble? What do I do then?
I suppose we shouldn't be surprised to see technology slowly redefining the meaning of privacy. After all, these days, employers routinely check up on employees' Facebook pages before interviews, and kids get in trouble when they inevitably leave an online paper trail after ditching school. That said, there's a difference between putting ourselves up on display with a public Facebook page and entrusting a third party to keep data confidential. I can't reasonably expect privacy in the case of the former, but I need strong assurances for the latter. The stakes are just too high.
In the end, our ascent into the cloud might not have too much in common with a quiet ride in a hot-air balloon. Right now, the cloud seems more like a delicious fruit hanging at the top of a tall tree—a tall tree with branches covered in thorns. The payoff is sweet, but the climb is perilous.
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HTTP/1.1 500 INTERNAL SERVER ERROR
Date: Fri, May 27, 2011 11:50:46 CST
Server: Apache/2.2.3 (Unix) (CentOS/Linux)
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HTTP/6.3.1 200 OK
Date: Wednesday, May 27, 2071 12:11:00
Session restored. Reconstructing SXML content...
See you on the other side
by Cyril Kowaliski — May 27, 2071
Hi folks. I've been putting this off for way too long at this point, but I finally did it—I booked the appointment. Tomorrow, I'll be heading back to the Google Ascension clinic and getting the procedure done. My doctors tell me carbon death isn't much further off now (it was a bad idea to eat all those potato chips when I was young, apparently), so I figure I'd better get cracking. I just hope I don't get hit by a bus walking down the street to the clinic. Wouldn't that just be the ultimate irony?
If everything works out okay, you can look forward to more news and updates early next week. Current-generation neural interface modulators take about six hours to complete the transfer, I'm told, and the quantum remapping usually goes on overnight. We're looking at a 96% success rate, which is considerably better than my current odds fighting it out with this dilapidated husk of a body. *cough* I suppose I won't actually have a body for a while after the procedure's done, but I pre-ordered one at the Apple Store last month. Hopefully, that means in a few weeks, I'll be able to resume chasing kids off my lawn in my much more intimidating and shinier iBody. (Yeah, I went with the glossy titanium finish. Sue me.) Everything that makes me, me, will be stored safely across Google's redundant quantum database centers, however, so I can get hit by as many buses as I want. Whoopee!
Really, what bothers me most about all this is having to walk past all those kids protesting outside the Ascension clinic. One of them had the nerve to throw some novelty dentures at me when I came in for the brain-mapping test yesterday. What are they so angry about? "Oh no, we can't get jobs! Why don't the old people just give up and start dying properly again!" Yeah, I'm sure you'll feel the same way when you get old.
I mean, it's still considerably cheaper to hire some kid than to keep paying a person with experience that spans three quarters of a century. Shouldn't they really be picketing their parents' houses? If mommy and daddy just put down the cash and had the procedure, they'd be able to support their kids past carbon death, too. What's the use of taking a moral stand if you're just going to make things difficult for everyone around you, from your family to old farts like me? When you get right down to it, it's just misguided selfishness.
Oh well, enough about that. It's time for my nap. I want to be fresh and alert for my going-away party tonight. See you guys on the other side!