Swimming Against the Stream

Posts tagged “libraries

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