The Good, the Bad, and the Cloudy: Cloud Computing as a Computerization Movement

Have you noticed there is an omni-presence of cloud computing in the popular technology media these days!?  I am currently reading an excellent social informatics book on Computerization Movements and Technology Diffusion by Elliott & Kraemer that I think can help provide a way to view the various ongoing technological hype with a clear head and a fresh perspective.  In brief, computerization movements refer to a kind of social and technological movement that promotes the adoption of computing within organizations and society, and provides an understanding for how advocates of computerization movements spread their promised idealized vision through the public discourse.

Ok, now back to ‘the cloud”.  It seems I can no longer go through an entire day without seeing a blog post, tweet, or email advertisement that doesn’t regale me with the “big, happy, fun-time, extreme” benefits of cloud computing.  Ok, sarcasm aside, the underlying concepts surrounding cloud computing are not new, and have essentially been around since the early days of computing that date back to the 1960s (cf., mainframe computing, thin-client computing, IMAP email, etc. ).  What is new is the intense hype surrounding the current push toward “the cloud”.  Cloud computing basically involves a shift from running software and storing data and information on our own PCs, toward doing and storing everything online with a host of third-party data and software providers.  This is where I have some questions…

There are of course reported benefits of cloud computing.  For one, I do enjoy my gmail and google docs as much as the next person, but I also enjoy accessing my data and information whenever and wherever I want– from MY hard drive.  There are also serious questions that have been raised regarding data privacy, user privacy, and platform dependence, meaning that cloud computing vendors of a platform will have much more control over how and when you can access your data.  For example, Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation has warned that cloud computing “will force people to buy into locked, proprietary systems that will cost more and more over time”.

There are also potential problems that I see when connecting the dots between other seemingly unrelated stories in the media.  For example, a recent article in Campus Technology titled Bandwidth Battle: How Entertainment is Strangling Education on Higher Ed Networks discusses the problems faced on college campuses in keeping up with the demand for network bandwidth.  Also, the October 26th cover of InformationWeek magazine reads “Spectrum Crisis!” and discusses the recent dire warning about wireless network bandwidth availability from FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.  If we connect these stories to the blissful hype coming from cloud computing advocates, we have utopian promises and technological realities that do not add up.  Another potential problem that cloud computing proponents are not willing to address is the related debate regarding net neutrality and how that could bring “the cloud” to a grinding halt for consumers that aren’t willing to pay premiums for bandwidth (cf., Richard Stallman’s earlier comments).  Finally, the recent T-mobile/Microsoft Sidekick cell phone data disaster is one recent example that may be an early indicator of some of the problems on the horizon for consumers.  This was a massive cloud computing failure in which nearly one million users of the Sidekick cell phone permanently lost all of their personal data, digital photos, and contacts to “the cloud”.  This could be just the beginning if consumers fail to stand up for their rights and demand answers to the many open questions regarding cloud computing.  Unfortunately as computerization movement scholars will note, any critic who does choose to raise such important questions is usually marked by advocates of the movement as impeding social and technological progress.

Unfortunately, I do not have answers to these questions, but I think that serious consumer failures could become more widespread and more catastrophic if answers are not provided by advocates of ‘the cloud’.  I am also concerned about the underlying motives of the current push for cloud computing.  I fear that they are only in the interest of cloud advocates to have tighter controls on consumer data, opportunities for licensing fees, and more access to user information and usage patterns, rather than a true interest in the benefits for the consumer.  If the motivations are in the wrong place, so then will the likely outcomes, and we could then see more consumer failures like the T-mobile/Microsoft sidekick debacle.  I for one will continue to advocate for a hybrid approach and will enjoy both the cloud, and a hard drive full of my software and data, with a local backup of course.

Mark Millard

Mark Millard is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Information Science at Indiana University. His research interests include; educational and social informatics, HCI (ubiquitous and pervasive computing), computer-mediated communication (CMC), ICT literacy, and research methods.