Why “the cloud” sucks

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The problem with “the cloud” isn’t its meaning, which is roughly “where offsite storage and computing happens.” It’s that the tech industry uses “cloud” to blur where stuff actually is and where it is happening: a sleight-of-noun trick that causes far more harm than good.

The idea behind “the cloud” is to moosh computing and networking together and present it as a kind of public utility, similar to electricity, water and gas. (Nicholas Carr said this would happen, long before it got called
“the cloud,” in The Big Switch.)

But there is a huge difference between the cost of not knowing the first sources of simple utilities and not knowing where the hell your computing happens, where your digital goods get stored, who has access to either, how and why. The cognitive load of the former rounds to zero and of the latter rounds to infinite.

Let’s start by looking at the cost in time. Exhibit A: Apple’s iCloud.

It isn’t just that Apple has blurred what the hell iCloud is and what it’s for, but that the company has a fully annoying way of putting stuff in iCloud that used to be on one’s device or devices. It does this on the incorrect assumption that it is unhelpful for you to know where your computing takes place and your files get stored—or even if they’re yours, theirs, neither or both.

I dealt with this ambiguity recently after Apple drained all music and podcast files off my phone and put them all in a cloud somewhere.

I wanted those back on my phone, so I could listen again when I go offline, which I do a lot—for example, in subways, on boats, on planes, in countries where cloud use is spinctered, or driving around the middle of Wyoming. Unable to find a way to do that anywhere online, I spent hours talking to AppleCare.

The first guy I talked to knew a lot, but not the simple fact that Apple had made this change. He also didn’t know how to fix it. Neither did the guy one level up—at least not at first. The final answer was changing some settings on the phone (which I forget or I would tell you).

It would have helped if Apple had notified customers of the new default, but they didn’t (that I know of anyway). And that’s typical of the cloudy thinking that the whole cloud phenomenon has encouraged.

I’m sure that’s the biggest reason Apple has done its ironic best both to popularize podcasting and to make listening to podcasts as hard as possible. All my podcasts are now seem to be located by default in iCloud, even though I have hundreds in an iTunes library on my laptop as well. Even when I start a podcast before getting on a plane, and hope that it’s now downloaded, once airborne the Podcast app tells me I can’t listen because there is no network connection. It’s an infuriating violation of the original affordance implied by the “pod” in podcast: that the file is stored on the device.

All this blurring also masks loss of personal autonomy and agency—and increased dependency on feudal overlords. It’s getting to the point where, if you’re not a hacker with a full suite of tools and skills for remaining independent in the connected world, you are in a state of at least partial slavery.

Your overlord’s cloud may lack bars on its windows, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a jail cell.

Originally published at my.1999.io on November 3, 2017.

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