Swimming Against the Stream

Dark Cloud Coming

My head’s been in a cloud lately. I don’t mean I’ve been distracted by airy dreams. Rather I’ve been pondering the growing cloud of digital information that seems to be drifting into view across the peaks of technological development: What we all soon will be calling “The Cloud”.

The Cloud is Forming on the Horizon

The concept of the Cloud has been morphing into existence ever since binary information could be transferred through a telegraph pole. And now since so much of our world has been translated into code and stored on servers we find ourselves getting closer to a decisive point in… well I was going to write ‘human development’, but that is definitely the wrong idea. Progress? Nay. Evolution? Hardly. Extinction? Too dramatic, but perhaps actually closer to the truth.

What is The Cloud? Let me give you my brief non-techie explanation. The Cloud is the aggregate of servers that contain the repository of information that is circulated digitally. It could be something only contained within local computers or data parsed and stored in a variety of public or private servers. In short it is where our digital info is stored as opposed to the Internet, which is a way to access the Cloud. Now I’m no specialist in these fields so please don’t try to nail me down to an exact definition here. I’m fully aware that there are much more precise definitions. You can find them on the Cloud… and that IS the point.

But here is what I do know something about: the raw data that is being transferred into the Cloud for safekeeping and pecuniary interest – music, film, books, photographs, audio recordings, news and anything else that can be translated into digital bytes. Now of course this is all old news to you I’m sure. It shouldn’t come as a shock to you that CD’s are giving way to downloads or that newspapers are having troubles surviving.

But let me give you a scattering of various factoids related to this digitization of reality. Did you know that in Spain they hardly make DVD’s anymore because most people just download mostly bootlegged copies of movies? Or the fact that the promotional wings of many American music distributors are in the process of whittling their physical CD’s down as they try, desperately, to get their music heard on radio stations. Instead of receiving an album a radio station now is often sent an email with a link and then told that they have received the music.

Or how about this question: What is going to happen to public libraries the more we devote ourselves to downloading virtual literature? There are a host of strange issues here. If the library lets you download a book is it yours? The answer so far is no. Or consider the strange things happening in the competition to develop better digital readers. So you connect your computer to the Cloud to receive your digital copy of a book. Now you’ve bought this book outright. But what if the company has made an erratum that needs to be fixed. Well guess what? The next time you plug in to your source to get another book it’s very possible they may “fix” your book for you. And here is where the darkness of the Cloud really starts forming.

Now if someone walked into my house, uninvited, to correct the errors, or worse the legal problems, in one of the books on my shelves, especially a representative of the company that sold it to me, I’d be pretty salty about it. But people don’t seem to realize that when things like this happen digitally it’s the same thing. And that it because nobody looks at all this digital tackle like it represents anything in particular. It is after all just zeros and ones, dots and dashes. And as we transfer more of our creative life to the binary we surrender to a strange record and erase mentality. We have a pad or pod or lapdog and we fill it with virtual baubles until we get full. Then we all erase to make more room. And no matter how much memory we have we will always fill it up with bigger and bigger files. And that is why the Cloud is coming into a prominence. Rather than keep all of your digital gunk on your simultaneously shrinking and expanding computers why not just keep it in the Cloud until you need it?

Well there are quite a few reasons actually. But let me put my cards on the table before I give them to you. Anyone who has walked into my house knows that I possess a rather formidable library of books, records, and movies. Without blowing my own horn I will state this: when I moved up to Alaska the contents of my container weighed over 11,000 pounds (5,000 kilos). Most of that was my library. And yes that nails me down to a very specific geographic spot. So if you want to talk about the curse of material possessions I’m guessing that unless you own a collection of marble statues I’m in a better position than most of my readers to reflect on the obstinate nature of matter and it’s temptations.

As I was moving from New York City one of my good friends told me to sell it all and just find it again online. I didn’t follow his advice and gladly. First of all, a lot of this stuff is nowhere to be found. Secondly, as the Cloud grows above us my private library is mutating from being a collection of hard copies to a collection of material originals. And most importantly what is on my shelves is not subject to revision against my will. It will remain politically incorrect, dangerous and tactile. The books will smell from age. The records will develope scratches. The CD’s and DVD’s will scuff and need polishing. This knowledge will remain in time not reconfigured in the Cloud for future consumption patterns.

But I know what people already think. If you don’t own so much crap you can be more mobile, you can travel more, you can make friends around the globe and go visit them. In a weird way it can be argued that the new resident of the global scene in more like Saint Francis who gave up his material possessions and lived in simplicity to spread the gospel. Well no one I know who has divested themselves to live globally (and I do know several of these types) is living simply. And what is the point of visiting people around the globe who live as cut off from their geography as you do. Because ultimately that is what this is all about. All of our cellphones, GPS systems, laptops, iPads, portable music machines, social networks are scything us off at the legs from our geographical relationship to the soil. Ironically so many people pay lip service to the environment while in the exact same instant that they are severing their connection to the actual rocks and trees and real human beings that make up this messy life.

And finally for me the real problem with the Cloud is this: that by consigning our knowledge and art to the virtual void we hasten the New Dark Age. This is too serious a discussion to follow right this moment. Essentially we are leaving our knowledge in a repository that is actively being studied for its weak links in order to be destroyed. As recent events in this moment of history have revealed clearly: If you think the unthinkable can’t happen you are clearly not living in this world. If you think that the Internet will never be taken down… Or that the Cloud will always preserve your memories… Well I hope you are prepared for the storm. Live real.

Byrne Power
Haines, Alaska
4/5/11

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11 responses

  1. Samantha Erenberger

    I really connected with the phrasing of this line: “And as we transfer more of our creative life to the binary…”

    The biggest push in digital technology is that it is as close to instant as processing power will allow. And I think that mode of description is a sign – the digital market is for consumables. They need not be permanent because they will be digested and forgotten as easily as they are obtained. I say this as an admitted user of those same products, digital music and digital books and streaming movies. But tactility is a sign of preservation, taking up space is a sign of permanence, imposing upon a physical realm is unignorable.

    Thanks for the thoughts.

    April 6, 2011 at 3:46 PM

  2. Thanks Sam. Thoughtful comment.

    Yes we are all implicated in the immediate real time consumption of information. And sadly it is as shallow as it is easy. And I fear that’s a ratio you can take to the bank. It’s almost like the analogy between stolen money and earned money. As the Russian proverb goes: Stolen money doesn’t weigh anything. Likewise information that is acquired without paying for it in terms of time spent to learn what it means is essentially wasted. It doesn’t stick.

    The French writer Paul Virilio also distinguishes between green ecology and what he calls gray ecology (l’écologie grise). Gray ecology pertains to speed and the speed of information. In his view we have become so deformed by the speed at which things happen that we can no longer control the catastrophic accidents of our technology or our social worlds. Interestingly many of those who champion a respectful relationship to the natural environment are completely adrift in the problems of the gray ecology.

    Living in Time is a key.

    April 6, 2011 at 8:08 PM

  3. mike

    My faint memory of Orwell – 1984 had come to mind a few months ago over the world of bits n bytes, it occurred to me Big Brother that was so feared (looking like Communism in those days) but actually is here but in a form more like a Trojan Horse or a digital plague…

    April 7, 2011 at 7:58 PM

  4. Some real nice points, Byrne, and I love your writing style. The collapse of the internet and The Cloud are interesting points, but they still feel far away for me. Plausible? Yes. But more immediate–for me, anyway–are the points you bring up about e-books (I hate hate HATE that we casually throw that prefix around). The tactile aspect, as you say, should not be so lightly cast aside. I get laughed at by many travelers in Vietnam for lugging a six month’s supply of reading material with me: “you should just buy a Kindle!”

    All concerns with privacy and ownership aside, I enjoy being able to dog-ear, bend the spine, spill coffee on the pages, underline passages that interest me (and I KNOW you can e-underline your bloody e-books, but it isn’t a real line; pixels versus ink). Books don’t break, can’t be surreptitiously edited for correctness, can be stuffed into backpacks and generally abused. The Kindle masquerades as a book, going so far as to disguise itself with a faux-dust jacket–but it lacks all bookishness. It’s an aesthetic thing.

    April 7, 2011 at 9:12 PM

  5. “…scything us off at the legs from our geographical relationship to the soil.”

    Couldn’t agree more.

    April 7, 2011 at 9:14 PM

  6. Thanks for the comments.

    Trygve I completely agree with you about traveling with books. I will often bring a book or two on a long trip (or a short one for that matter). But then as the trip wears on I begin to hunt down books that I will accumulate along the way. I remember reading a great History of Paris that I found at Heathrow Airport in London. Then there was there was a survey of Eastern Europe and the end of Communism written by Timothy Garton Ash, which I bought in Prague. And how can I forget buying Road-Side Dog by Czeslaw Milosz in Posnan, Poland. Each of those books then added immensely to the journey.

    And it is the tactility of the book that is so underrated. I think it was that same tactile nature that forced me to reexamine the role of the puppet as an antidote to this plague of imitation life.

    Also Mike thanks for your comments as well. Trojan Horse indeed. We have all had to readjust our worlds to the new digital standard, just as people once had to sell their horses to get cars. But is a car really better than a horse.

    Or maybe it is more like a plague or contagion. Maybe that’s why the zombie has become such a fixture in current culture.

    I notice there are several stages with any new technological device… 1)Rumor 2)Fascination 3)Quotidian Life with the Thing 4) Addiction or Enslavement 5) Rather Hopeless Questioning 6) A few Souls Seek Alternatives to the Disorders Brought About by the Thing (Others Wonder What the Fuss is About)

    Well my needle is permanently jammed at 6 for all new technologies. I may have to sell the horse one day to get around. But I know my books are not negotiable.

    April 7, 2011 at 10:19 PM

  7. SoiDisant

    “…Interestingly many of those who champion a respectful relationship to the natural environment are completely adrift in the problems of the gray ecology.”

    And many of us Do Not.

    For many of us, our lived experience, in immediate and face-to-face contact with the natural world, right at home in the locality where we live, leads us toward a wariness of or suspicion toward a good deal more about contemporary technological society than the Cloud, even as we likewise sequester and try to preserve our own collections of books, tools and the like.

    What I find troubling, here, in many of these essays, is a sort of anti-environmental axe that get a bit of excessive grinding. Yes, mainstream environmentalism is often vulnerable to the kind of criticism that points toward many self-declared environmentalists’ ways of living (e.g. within the ecology of the grey).

    What is not noticed, here, too often, though, is that there are many dedicated people who love and strive for the natural world of ordinary places and the forms of life that live in them–and they are environmentalists of a different kind.

    Further, for many, who’ve chosen a life of partnership with another person, and children, hard choices are increasingly forced upon them by an ever steepening gradient between the haves and the have-nots. There are many who aren’t free to embark upon the adventure of retreating from an urban, inner city life to a life on the edge of developed civilization in order to discover the importance of locality and community. (There is nothing wrong with doing that. It is just that many people don’t themselves get a chance at it, even when they are so inclined. In other words, many of us here, enjoying the luxury of writing and commenting, are very privileged to be able to, and we should not forget that.)

    I will grant you this: If environmentalism is to matter at all, it must make sure it pays less attention the great ‘cachet’ issues of whales and seals and ANWR than it does to the impact of industrial civilization upon ordinary life in places not particularly noted for their extraordinary (and status-enhancing) natural or geographic setting.

    April 21, 2011 at 1:22 AM

  8. SoiDisant

    I would add that I think I would prefer the term “ecology”–even though professional, practicing ecologists are made uncomfortable by the common use of the word–to the term “environment” because ecology invokes relationship in a high-context, place-and-time specific setting where individual autonomy (human, animal, plant, fungi, protoctist, bacteria etc.) unfolds in web of deeply interpenetrating interactions. For an ecology, interaction and interdependence matters a great deal.

    (Note that autonomy, as used here, is NOT a synonym for doctrinaire Individualism. Thank you.)

    April 21, 2011 at 1:36 AM

  9. Soi,

    I’m certainly believe in treating the ecology with respect and trying in as many ways as possible to rectify as much as is possible and to still have a love for humanity at the same time. The problem with the environmentalist cause to me seems that they churn out vast tracts of propaganda just like everyone else. And that seems to reveal a fatal ignorance of the issues related to reality and technology that people like Paul Virilio and Jacques Ellul have discussed. The question seems to me to be how do we preserve and possibly restore our relationships to creation without losing our relationship to reality. And I would have to say on that score very little has been done. The virtual is swallowing us up wholesale.

    Thanks for all the thoughts. You make many good points.

    April 21, 2011 at 8:17 AM

  10. SoiDisant

    Later… In considering the use of the term “ecology” further, I’m coming to believe it may time to coin a new term for what we are trying to talk about when we are invoking the intricate web of place-based human and non-human interactions in dynamic equilibrium that in North American ecological circles goes by the term “ecosystem”–but without the built-in linguistically mechanistic bias built into a word that includes (and invokes) a “system”.

    Perhaps ecocoenose and ecocoenosis (or for that matter, ecocoengnosis!) might work. These are derivatives of the existing ecological terms coined by Karl Mobius in 1877 (more common in Europe than America) for “complete” biological communities comprising organisms playing the roles of primary production, consuming, and decomposition, namely, biocoenose and biocoenosis.

    We would want to invoke, as does the term ecosystem, the larger, non-living aspect of the setting in which living communal, cooperative and competitive interactions arise, without stringing together a clumsy string of greco-latin prefixes, such as geobiocoenosis, particularly because we would wish the term we use to be elegantly extended to include the human world of competing cultures and material economies.

    The prefixing of “Eco-” (from the Greek: οἶκος, “house”) to “Coenose” (a collection of life forms that found together, interact as a community) suggests both the web of life and the setting in which it is found. (The favorite American term, ecosystem, does this too, but as with particularly potent terms, holds the power to constrain or frame thinking about community ecology in ways that some might find unfortunate.)

    When talking about such interactions as a kind of “thing”, it would be an ecocoenose. Such interactions in process, as they unfold, would be an ecocoenosis. Deep understanding or comprehension of the workings of an ecocoenose would be ecocoengnosis (-gnosis, standing as one of the many Greek words for knowledge or knowing).

    April 22, 2011 at 3:56 PM

  11. strike2012

    I think a point is being missed, here. A small one, perhaps, but worthy of mention. If they said, “you can keep your information in a server farm parking lot full of wired semi-tractor-trailers [the way they do it now]”,” instead of “you can keep it in the Cloud,” many fewer folks might be interested. Invoking the Cloud (the Heavenly Cloud!) is key. Form, over substance, every time, is the path to successful selling.

    October 1, 2014 at 9:44 PM

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