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Sci Tech    H4'ed 5/23/11

Hey, You, Get Offa My Cloud!

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Back in the Jurassic Era of the 1970's, a friend of mine's husband studied Computer Science at a large University.   Back in the Pre-PC era, computers with less functionality than a 90's cell phone filled entire rooms. As punch cards gave way to terminals, computer scientists were able to access these giant calculators through terminals that sent messages and instructions typed in blurry green to the UNIVAC's innards.   If you were lucky, after impatiently waiting, you'd get a response other than "ERROR".

My friend was luckier than most--not only did she have her own personal Geek Squad to help her learn how to use computers, but they were able to get one of the earliest modems at their home.     They could take their bulky wired telephone receiver and put it in a machine that allowed them to remotely connect a keyboard the size of a small piano with the behemoth sitting in a frigid warehouse in the college.    Now, she and her husband could sit at home and communicate with the computer, as well as converse with other remote users through a new network funded by the Defense Department.   Email was born.

Ten years later, she was trading in her Apple IIe for a Mac.   Computers could fit on a desktop, and, though still far behind today's smart phones in utility, allowed all a user's functions to be performed at home--and stored at home in the hard disk, and in unwieldy floppys.   That model was refined, so that today's hard disks store entire libraries of data, and floppys have been blessedly replaced by the far more efficient flash drives; but the concept remained the same.   Users would use computers conveniently on desks or laps, and maintain their own data libraries securely within their own hands.   (Except when hacked by invaders on the DARPANET's descendant, the Internet/Web.)

Well, since "there's nothing new under the sun'--or is it better to say "what goes around comes around'?--we're now finding ourselves going back to the centralized computing model.   Rather than carry your data and files with you, secure them in a central "location", and access them when you need them.   Yes,   "the cloud" now allows us to safely store our work, ebooks, photos, software/games, etc. offsite, available for access 24/7.   All we'll need at home is a "thin client" or other keyboard so that, like my friend 30 years ago, we can log in and work via the web.

I suppose on the surface it makes sense.   Why duplicate unneeded computing power on each laptop or desktop when you can simply have a basic tool to reach the web and an HD or even 3D screen displaying your files from "the Cloud"?   And, why risk misplacing a flash drive or crashing your hard drive--when your data is backed up and "safe" in "the Cloud"?   Sounds like a "can't lose", right?

Actually, that's what I'm worried about--Losing.   Let's say I nest my family photos, my Great American Novel draft, my purchased ebooks and TV shows, my MahJong   games, my tax templates, etc. in the Cloud.     I've been promised confidentiality--but can I truly be sure that my personal information and data won't be accessed by someone else?     Can I be sure that data mining programs won't pick up on my emails or other personal communications stored in the Cloud and decide that my criticisms of the Bush family or even Friend of Wall Street Obama deserve further attention--along with my tax returns?   I've already ceded so much of my privacy by engaging in searches on Google, chatting on Facebook, or purchasing dinner at the grocery store.     Won't I be opening the door to having the curious sniffing into my thoughts as well as my habits?   Of course, we're reassured there will be safeguards.     But, last I heard, the government or "law enforcement" can come up with legal ways to supersede confidentiality statutes for "a good cause".   And those "good causes" are always wise, reasonable, and altruistic, yes?

But more alarming than losing the privacy of the paper hidden in the secret desk drawer or in the stashed away flash drive, is the possibility that we may lose reality and truth.   We're already learning that search engines may be filtering what we see based on our previous choices--effectively isolating us in little bubbles of our computer assessed interests.   Imagine now if these bubbles are created not only to   target market to us, but to keep us unaware of the world beyond the bubble.   For example, imagine if the ebooks we've bought and stored centrally are edited, perhaps for reasons of political correctness or political manipulation.   We might never know.   Little by little, Big Brother could erase traces of classic literature, change musical compositions, edit speeches and videos, Photoshop visuals, etc.   And, without paper or a local cache that stays in our hands, we could witness the Cloud turn into a blinding fog.




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Jill Jackson is a practitioner of kindness and common sense. Unlike her cat, she prefers to think out of the box.

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