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.”
Greetings! Welcome to the CASTAC Blog, an exchange for ideas and information about science and technology as social phenomena. We hope to build on a thriving community of scholars from around the world who are concerned about the implications of technologized products and worldviews that are impacting human beings and other forms of life. Our focus is interdisciplinary and welcoming to a variety of scholars interested in a diverse set of research issues, ethics, and impacts of technology on increasingly blended forms of humans and machines in contemporary life.
The CASTAC Blog was created by Patricia G. Lange, Jennifer Cool, and Jordan Kraemer, who are all members of the Committee on the Anthropology of Science, Technology, and Computing (CASTAC). CASTAC is a sub-committee of the General Anthropology Division (GAD) of the American Anthropological Association (AAA). For more than 20 years, CASTAC has had a thriving presence at AAA, as researchers have come together to exchange views about what it means to conduct anthropological research in technologized arenas. Sometimes the opportunities and challenges we face are very different, given that we research everything from nanotechnology to new media. In other instances, though, we face similar challenges, such as public perception of how we as researchers question the effects and processes of science, technology, and computing (the so-called “science wars”). Other challenges we often face include working in interdisciplinary terrain and receiving resistance from the academy or industry about our contributions. Many of us simply wish to geek out and connect with other people who are doing cool things in the intersection of anthropology and sociology and science and technology studies.
Our goal is to encourage dialogue—in a truly polyvocal space—on research findings, tools, new events, and social connections to others in this intersection of domains. We welcome contributions from interested parties within and outside of CASTAC to post about their research, contribute off-the-cuff comments or ask stimulating questions that can bring greater understanding to processes and products of humans’ engagement with technology.
Even writing a simple description of this domain presents challenges. The discipline of anthropology has exhibited a long-standing, anthropos-centric focus; but scholars within our community are already writing about the importance of microbes, biological organisms, and artificial life in ways that inevitably broaden the terrain of consideration of anthropological inquiry. Those of us engaged in research of new media have also pushed the boundaries of anthropological practice by following the “action” and going online to investigate new social formations that increasingly rely on mediated communication.
In an important way, we are all pushing the boundaries of anthropology. We wish to create a space where this kind of intellectual risk-taking is safe and welcome. I think we all realize that what we are doing today is, in fact, going to be the taken-for-granted anthropology of tomorrow. When I faced resistance from certain quarters about my dissertation project on MUDs (multi-user dimensions) and the social implications of tech talk, a wonderful mentor at the University of Michigan told me that I was ahead of my time and that my colleagues would catch up one day. We suspect many, if not all of us, have similar tales to tell, and the stakes are considerably higher in a number of technical and scientific areas. Happily, we have a community to hand that is ready and eager to hear what you have to say!
Consider this space a dialogue in progress that’s about promoting community both within and outside of CASTAC. We are interested in hearing many voices rather than gathering journal-ready copy. Scientific and humanistic insights need not be produced from the single peer-review journal path, as we all know. The backstage conversations often spark the big ideas, and provide much-needed support in challenging times.
Of course social spaces like this only work if everyone contributes in some way. After many years of being relatively quiet, CASTAC’s business meeting at AAA in the Fall of 2011 showed that many of us wish to continue to meet and keep a space alive for interacting with our colleagues in this space. We have devised The CASTAC Blog to accommodate different kinds of dialogue and contributions. We welcome submissions from all scholars in this area and people from different perspectives, including students, faculty, practitioners, policy makers, and other interested readers.
- People are encouraged to post about their initial observations, ongoing work, or research results in the Research section of the blog.
- Other people may wish to talk about methods or tools that they found useful or problematic in our Tools & Techniques section.
- Our section Beyond the Academy may be of particular interest to those who grapple with these issues in non-academic settings.
- We have also included a Member Sound Off section to encourage ideas about how the community can be improved, and to encourage personal statements of what it means to be part of a community like this.
What do you hope being part of this dialogue will bring? What can The CASTAC Blog, the organization of CASTAC or even other scholars in this space do to help you attain your goals? Join us!
COMING SOON! We have wonderful posts from Lucy Suchman, David Hakken, and David J. Hess in the pipeline, so stay tuned to the CASTAC Blog!
– Patricia G. Lange, Editor-in-Chief
Welcome to the CASTAC blog, the official blog of the Committee on the Anthropology of Science, Technology, and Computing!