The iCloud will fall on our heads!

Paul Raven @ 05-07-2011

[Editor’s note: I’m back from a long weekend away learning about literature. Poking around in the Futurismic dashboard as I get back up to speed, I noticed this piece had somehow been saved as a draft about three weeks back and not published, so I might as well roll it out of the door now, despite it being a bit late in making the point it was meant to make. If nothing else, it should irk the people waggling their fingers at me for switching browsers from the borked Kubuntu flavour of Firefox to Google Chrome. *cue Bill Hicks sucking-Satan’s-cock noise*]

Just so I can make it clear that I’m an equal-opportunities snarker rather than a Googlebooster, you know? Right; regular readers will know I’m not exactly an Apple fanperson, but I’m no happier seeing Luddite fearmongering dressed up as Concern Journalism attacking their stuff for stupid reasons than I am anyone else’s…

If you’ve ever worked in an office with wireless intranet, you’ll already be familiar with how this works as it’s practically identical, only on a global scale. But instead of your boss periodically lording over your desktop as you avoid work, countless invisible spiders will be crawling across your data while you sleep. And that’s where the iCloud becomes profoundly disturbing for anyone peering into the walled garden from a virus-infested byway.

Gah! Spiders! Everyone hates spiders, right? Especially at night-time! When it’s dark! (Also – virus-infested byway? Aren’t you supposed to be painting the outside of the walled garden as safer than the inside, here? Or are you just generally terrified of The Series Of Tubes?)

One may interpret this new, free service as manna from the tech gods. Or perhaps just as Apple keeping up-to-date now that cloud computing has captured the public imagination. But there’s something far more sinister at work.

By dismissing the importance of the personal computer and inviting its customers to let it hold on to their data “for free”, we are getting a sneak peak at how it intends to engineer what Tim Wu calls “the master switch”. Wu argues that as per previous cycles of communication consolidation, the internet will eventually be controlled by a small group of corporate monopolies. The “switch” is the ability to control competition, which comes from controlling the nature of the system.

OK, so Wu’s switch is a genuine matter for concern, I’ll grant you, and Apple are closer to having an integrated hardware+software environment for their client base than anyone else I can think of. This is a potentially interesting angle; where’s Haddow gooing to take it next?

We’ve known for a while now that Apple favours a closed system. Of course no one will be forced to join the cloud, just as no one is “forced” to watch television or use a phone. But if and when enough people do, it will become the status quo, and Apple might be able to exert pressure on any delinquent customers. The pressure will come from the offerings of media producers and application developers, who will find it much easier to make a profit once Apple’s copyright-friendly version of the internet is routed through a system that is never not connected to the North Carolina mothership.

Ugh. Nope, no one is “forced” (nice scare quotes, sir, nice scare quotes) to watch TV or use the phone… or brush their teeth, wear supportive footwear or waterproof coats, live in well-insulated houses. The downsides of all these technologies are balanced by end-user benefits, which may give us some sort of insight into why they caught on, y’know? To be clear, I’m really not keen on walled garden ecosystems, but that’s because they restrict consumer options; as such, to wring my hands over the existence of walled garden ecosystems would be an act of hypocrisy, because the consumer choice to limit one’s consumer choice in the name of convenience is still a consumer choice. By all means, attack the tangible downsides of walled gardens… but skip it with the nebulous Luddite straw men, why don’t you?

The ability to exert influence over the nature of the online experience is the missing piece to Apple’s blueprint for domination.

Blueprint for domination! Muah-hah-hah! *rubs hands together*

And it will all be expertly marketed, just as Apple has marketed its hardware – by providing a user experience that is more elegant and comfortable than that of its competitors. But once Apple has its market locked in, there will be unexpected consequences. As we’ve seen in the case of Amazon and WikiLeaks, the politics of cloud computing can become insolvent rather quickly.

Amazon yanked the Wikileaks data because of state pressure; and yes, I expect Apple would have done the same in the same position. So do we pillory corporations for doing as their governments tell them (while we obey in exactly the same sheep-like fashion), or do we pillory the government for leaning on the corporations to do their bidding in spheres where their control is otherwise limited? As people have already pointed out in previous threads, government policy often favours corporations more than it does citizens, and this sort of response is a corollary of that; sending one hired thug packing will cure the symptoms in the short term, but the disease reigns unchecked.

In the wake of the recent attacks on supposedly secure corporations that have been proven to be defenceless, the stakes for online security have been raised. And while Apple will be working to create what can only become the holy grail of hackerdom, the increased volatility of networks is a key factor as to why its vision of a uniform interface has become so appealing.

“The intertubes are full of danger! Apple are trying to ameliorate that danger! Foolish futility – the safer you make it, the more appealing cracking that nut will become!” If this is an argument against attempts to innovate new and more secure ways of using network technology, then its logical extension says we should just abandon network technology altogether, because no matter how hard we work to keep ahead of the hackers, they’ll always keep trying. The latter is very true (Everything Can And Will Be Hacked, as I reiterate here frequently), but if you can’t stand the bathwater you’d best avoid having the baby, hadn’t you?

Alternatively: “People have their houses burgled! LockmakerCo sells locks they claim will make your house less likely to be burgled! But this will only encourage lockpickers to raise their game! O NOES!” Technology is an arms race against entropy and exploits; always has been, always will be. Buy a good lock, and accept that a determined burglar will crack it if they really want to; this, I believe, is probably why insurance was invented. Life comes with risk; you can either suck it up and take responsibility for yourself and your choices, or you can outsource that burden of care to the government and then complain in surprised tones when they fail to protect you from your own stupidity and/or shortsightedness.

Mitigate your own risks. Use the cloud (Apple’s or anyone else’s) and a external hard drive for double security; don’t store data you wouldn’t want anyone else looking at in an unencrypted format on any machine that you can’t control. This is basic Green Cross Code shit, people. Don’t blame the sellers of convenience for exploiting your laziness; only you can empower them to screw up on your behalf.

In one of those wonderful moments of RSS serendipity, this little gem was right next to the lament dissected above.

New Things - Stuff No-One Told MeYarp.


Unspinning the coal-powered cloud

Paul Raven @ 31-03-2010

All the anti-tech curmudgeons and doomsayers have leapt all over Greenpeace’s new campaign attacking cloud computing and the forthcoming Apple iYawn for their carbon footprint. (Fans of irony should note that the campaign documents can be downloaded in the ubiquitous PDF format from Greenpeace’s website.)

Of course, the energy appetite of any technology should be under scrutiny, but Greenpeace’s sloganeering is disproportionate when you actually look at the real numbers:

Computing accounts for a bit less than 3% of U.S. energy usage, according to Lawrence Livermore Labs. The global IT industry as a whole generates about 2% of global CO2 emissions.

Cars, on the other hand, which the vast majority of the people Greenpeace is trying to target also own, are the single largest contributor to climate change, according to NASA, exceeding all other sources in their impacts, and exceeding computing’s global impacts by more than a factor of ten. Greenpeace (I’m a supporter) has made a lot of noise about computing’s climate impacts, while the average commute or drive to the mall is likely far, far more a threat to the future than the average month’s Google searching…

That said, suggesting people drive less is an old tactic that’s had little success, so I suppose you can’t blame them for chasing a target that’s a little more trendy and newsworthy. Seeing this story bouncing around the blogs of the world is akin seeing “Drive Less, Walk More” billboards at a monster truck meet…

In other internet news, the rapid viral expansion of Chatroulette suggests that the internet’s cultural clock is running faster and faster… which means more irritating memes per year, I guess, though if you extend the logic they probably won’t last as long. Mixed blessings, AMIRITE?

And finally, Jeff Jarvis has penned a Cyberspace Bill Of Rights over at The Guardian. It’s all very sensible stuff, carefully worded… and hence lacks all of the naive flash and glorious geek bravado of John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace from back in 1996. Amazing how we’ve gone from wild frontier to corporate federation in just fifteen years, eh?


Black Cloud Computing: botnets dwarf legitimate cloud processing providers

Paul Raven @ 25-03-2010

Via SlashDot, another reminder of the sheer scale and clout of botnets, all just sitting out there waiting to be rented, no questions asked:

the biggest legitimate cloud provider is Google, based on Joffe’s information, made up of 500,000 systems, 1 million CPUs and 1,500 gigabits per second (Gbps) of bandwdith. Amazon comes in second with 160,000 systems, 320,000 CPUs and 400 Gbps of bandwidth, while Rackspace offers 65,000 systems, 130,000 CPUs and 300 Gbps.

[…]

… their capacity pales to that of the biggest cloud on the planet, the network of computers controlled by the Conficker computer worm. Conficker controls 6.4 million computer systems in 230 countries at 230 top level domains globally, more than 18 million CPUs and 28 terabits per second of bandwidth…

Who says cloud computing will never scale, eh? Added bonus: some forms of hacking may be illegal, but that won’t necessarily stop the US Secret Service from payrolling you to the tune of $75k a year for your work. Guess I should have spent more time programming my Vic20 than reading novels…


Here today, gone tomorrow: why the next decade’s web won’t feel familiar

Paul Raven @ 07-10-2009

mosaic of Web2.0 logosPeople seem to be waking up to the impermanence of the web of late. TechDirt points us to a mainstream journalism article at the Globe & Mail, which springboards from the imminent nuking of GeoCities to worrying what will happen to all of your pictures uploaded to Facebook when it eventually (and inevitably) goes the same way. [image by jonas_therkildson]

Lately, there’s been so much discussion about the permanence of information – especially the embarrassing kind – that we have overlooked the fact that it can also disappear. At a time when we’re throwing all kinds of data and memories onto free websites, it’s a blunt reminder that the future can bring unwelcome surprises.

Ten years ago, you could have called GeoCities the garish, beating heart of the Web. It was one of the first sites that threw its doors open to users and invited them to populate its pages according to their own creativity. At a time when the Web was still daunting, it encouraged laypeople to set up their own homepages free of charge.

Kinda like the forerunner of MySpace, then, albeit (somewhat ironically) easier on the eyes and ears… and MySpace’s days are certainly (and mercifully) numbered, if the traffic figures are to be believed. But I digress…

And now, it’s curtains. GeoCities won’t disappear entirely. The Internet Archive – a non-profit foundation based in San Francisco dedicated to backing up the Web for posterity’s sake – is trying to salvage as much as it can before the deadline hits. At least one other independent group is trying to do the same. But this complicates things, because it puts GeoCities users’ data into the hands of an unaccountable third party.

Money-losing websites aren’t exactly novelties. Smaller sites flicker in and out of existence like those bugs that only have 18 hours to mate before they die. But it’s disconcerting to see a big site – one that, long ago, was one of the most popular on the Web – not just fade into obscurity, but come to its end game.

It bring to light some truths about data that are easily overlooked. Websites are like buildings: you can’t just abandon them indefinitely and expect them to keep working. For one thing, that electronic storage isn’t free. Storing files requires media that degrade and computers that fail and power that needs paying for.

The obvious answer here is to make sure you have local backups of anything stored “in the cloud” that you couldn’t bear to lose… but it’s only obvious to those with some degree of computer savvy, and (based on personal experience) everyone else is insufficiently bothered to worry about it ahead of time, no matter how patiently you try to explain the situation. If nothing else, there’ll always be good money for people who can write custom API scraping tools for defunct social networks… that business model will be the new equivalent to the photography studios places who now make their income by scanning and retouching old snapshots from the pre-digital era.

But other changes in the way we use the web are very much afoot, as pointed out by Clive Thompson at Wired. For the last decade, classic search has been the dominant internet tool, propelling Google to the top of the pyramid. But this is the age of Twitter, the temporal gateway into the “real-time web”; maybe the old surfing metaphor will finally make more sense when we’re all riding the Zeitgeist of trending topics:

For more than 10 years, Google has organized the Web by figuring out who has authority. The company measures which sites have the most links pointing to them—crucial votes of confidence—and checks to see whether a site grew to prominence slowly and organically, which tends to be a marker of quality. If a site amasses a zillion links overnight, it’s almost certainly spam.

But the real-time Web behaves in the opposite fashion. It’s all about “trending topics”—zOMG a plane crash!—which by their very nature generate a massive number of links and postings within minutes. And a search engine can’t spend days deciding what is the most crucial site or posting; people want to know immediately.

[…]

“It’s exactly what your friends are going to be talking about when you get to the bar tonight,” OneRiot executive Tobias Peggs says. “That’s what we’re finding.” Google settles arguments; real-time search starts them.

Well, at least we’re not going to be short of things to argue about. If that ever happened, the web would probably close down due to lack of interest… 😉


The dangers of cloud computing

Tom James @ 21-07-2009

cloudJonathan Zittrain explores some of the downsides of the incipient cloud computing revolution in this article at the New York Times:

If you entrust your data to others, they can let you down or outright betray you. For example, if your favorite music is rented or authorized from an online subscription service rather than freely in your custody as a compact disc or an MP3 file on your hard drive, you can lose your music if you fall behind on your payments — or if the vendor goes bankrupt or loses interest in the service.

The crucial legacy of the personal computer is that anyone can write code for it and give or sell that code to you — and the vendors of the PC and its operating system have no more to say about it than your phone company does about which answering machine you decide to buy.

This freedom is at risk in the cloud, where the vendor of a platform has much more control over whether and how to let others write new software. Facebook allows outsiders to add functionality to the site but reserves the right to change that policy at any time, to charge a fee for applications, or to de-emphasize or eliminate apps that court controversy or that they simply don’t like.

As useful as storing links, calandars, emails, and documents in the cloud is I like to keep local backups of all my stuff (where possible). The further threat to the decentralised innovation that has characterised software development over the last several decades is another reason to be sceptical of the benefits of the cloud.

[image from Dan Queiroz on flickr]


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