In retrospect, 2014 may appear a pivotal year for technological change. It was the year that “wearable” technologies began shifting from geek gadget to mass-market consumer good (including the announcement of the Apple Watch and the rising popularity of fitness trackers), that smartphone and tablet usage outstripped that of desktop PCs for accessing the Internet, along with concurrent interest in home automation and increasingly viable models for pervasive computing (such as Google’s purchase of smart thermostat Nest), and that computer algorithms, machine learning, and recommendation engines came increasingly to the fore of public awareness and debate (from Apple buying streaming service Beats to the effects of Facebook’s algorithms). Many of these shifts have been playing out world-wide, or at least, in diverse contexts, such as Chinese online retailer Alibaba going public and Xiaomi smartphone maker speedily surpassing most rivals. It also proved to be an exciting year on The CASTAC Blog, where our team of Associate Editors and contributors brought our attention to this rapidly shifting technological landscape, and to pressing questions and debates driving anthropological inquiry into science and technology.
In today’s post, I continue my predecessor Patricia Lange’s tradition of reviewing themes and highlights on the blog from the past year. Some of these are topical, and included energy, the environment, and infrastructure, crowdsourcing and the “sharing” economy, wearables, algorithms and the “Internet of Things,” science communication, science’s publics, and citizen science, while others were more conceptual or even experimental—reflections on longterm ethnographic engagement with technology, broader issues of scientific (and ethnographic) authority, technological infrastructures as social infrastructures and tacit knowledges (such as Jenny Cool’s co-chair report), and broadly, how to make anthropological research into science and technology relevant within and beyond academic circles.
In May, Adobe prompted me reflect on the “Cloud.” Adobe announced that it’s widely used “Creative Suite,” which includes things like Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, Acrobat and many other software products would be transitioning to a subscription-based, web-based and cloud-based product, the “Creative Cloud.” My first (and clearly cynical) thought was, “Well, at least I don’t have to install their bloated [explicative] software anymore or have Acrobat update every other day.”
At the same time, the reality of what that would mean for people who use these products for their jobs, encouraged me to consider it further. It also prompted me to return to a 2008 discussion between Richard Stallman and Bobbie Johnson of the Guardian.
I should also disaggregate the cloud infrastructure from products that deliver their services via the cloud. These are often conflated in accounts of the trend. The cloud infrastructure is/are computers and the networks that connect them and them to the world (and lots of people, power, buildings, …). Amazon Web Services is such an infrastructure. Amazon developed it to meet their own needs and now sells those services. Google, Apple, Microsoft and many others have their own data centers that house this physical infrastructure. Cloud-based services, like the Creative Cloud are delivered via cloud infrastructure. They are related, but not the same. You’d be surprised how many services a single web-page or video view triggers.
I use the cloud for my research. I’m writing this in Evernote, which I pay for a premium subscription. I keep files synchronized between machines via a paid DropBox account. In some ways I suspect that my yearly use of TurboTax online makes my use of it a cloud-based service. I use GMail for all non-institutional email. According to Stallman, I’m stupid, and maybe I am. But why am I stupid and how did I get there?
Gmail was the first cloud-based service I came in contact with. I managed an invite in June of 2004. At the time I was a graduate student and in-between computers after having lost my computer due to its proximity to a liquid beverage. My writing and my email were critically important to me. At the time, my email constituted about 700MB of computer storage and when I joined, Gmail provided each user with 1GB of email storage for free. Gmail was a place to store my email that I could access from any computer. It was a place that in all likelihood was less likely to crash and take my data with it than my computer. At this time, typical space allowed to people using institutional email addresses was somewhere around 100MB.
I knew I was trading access to my data for a free service. I’d have paid to protect it if I could. But, that wasn’t what Google wanted. They were playing a different game. The potential of Gmail for me was it’s portability and storage space. Google was responding to a need that many users have, email storage space and the ability to access it from nearly anywhere. Now, however, many of us are worried about the power that we’ve handed over to companies providing cloud-based services. Maybe it is stupid. But where were the alternatives? Why weren’t there efforts made to make data access, portability and reliability in other ways? I don’t like carrying hard-drives or computers from work to home. I’ve tried. Synchronization is always slow and clunky.
But let’s come back to Adobe for a moment. The Creative Cloud isn’t about responding to a need. New moves are being made in the cloud-based services space that are about something different. Like so many things, it’s less about responding to user’s needs and instead corporate needs. The game industry loves to pioneer this stuff and this is more about ensuring that users are licensed and paying than about providing new capabilities that make the lives and work of users easier.
What users are really balking at is the enforcement of what has always been the case. We already fell for the trap. We don’t own our software. We license it. The same increasingly applies to “our” devices. The rules that have been at play for years are only now being enforced and it is shifting our relationship with computers and software companies. The cloud is about the browser as well. Increasingly our work occurs within one of many tabs in Chrome, Safari or Firefox. The browser is a powerful platform that removes the complexity that made the battles over Mac vs. PC desktop software so salient from 1990 through 2010. Even desktop software frequently requires the web-based services provided by a network. Code can be instantly updated to patch “holes,” that users slip through, for good and bad. The cloud is another piece of “society made malleable.”