~ Posted by Hazel Sheffield, October 25th 2012
When I left my iPhone in a yellow cab this summer and had to replace it with a new one next day, I watched, amazed, as all of my photos, music and phone numbers were synched with the new phone simply by putting in my old password. Even when I no longer had a physical device, all of that information had been stored in something Apple calls "the cloud".
The cloud has come to mean all the personal data that has been stored from our online lives, whether that be the remote storage of documents on Google, personalised book recommendations on Amazon, or the contact list that syncs itself across Apple devices. On Monday night two British academics, Rob Coley and Dean Lockwood, visited students at New York University to discuss the many aspects of our lives which will be affected by this invisible force.
Sukhdev Sandhu, the curator of the "Colloquium of Unpopular Culture" at which Lockwood and Coley were speaking, started the discussion with a quote from Julian Assange:
Few have noticed but we now live in the once-imagined futures of our darkest science fiction. Technology we do not understand surrounds us. Without understanding it we are vulnerable in ways we cannot predict.
Much of the talk that followed was couched in academic terms, from the “banalisation” of the cloud, to its "hidden generative rules” and “post-hegemonic powers”—ideas which were largely impenetrable to anyone not signed up for a master's in media studies. But during the questions at the end, the NYU students cut to the chase: who is behind the cloud, and how can it be resisted? The answers were depressing. Corporations like Google, Facebook and Microsoft are behind the cloud, but there is no single organisation in charge. "There is no spider sitting at the centre of that web,” Lockwood said. Because we can’t opt out of it, Coley and Lockwood have settled for trying to open up some kind of debate. Or, as Lockwood said at the end, "Screaming about it seems like the best we can do."
Coley and Lockwood, from Lincoln University, have written a book based on their research. “Cloud Time” argues that in an era when our surveillance of one another takes place voluntarily on sites like Facebook, power is no longer leveled over society but is now within the invisible cloud that glues us together. The movie “Inception” is an allegory of this shift. Once, spy movies depended on the skill of a detective extracting information from sources. In “Inception”, detectives seed the subconcious imaginations of their victims with business proposals.
Our acceptance of cloud technology is such that Assange’s opening quote and these two lecturers risked sounding paranoid, but they had a point. When Facebook and Amazon interpret our interests, we may accept their recommendations, barely thinking about the way in which we might be compromised by surrendering our information. We sign up to these sites and brush away any lingering unease with the conviction that everyone is doing it, so it can't be that bad. But the stuffy language that makes up the debate needs to be made more accessible. Otherwise, we are caught between denial and academia. If the cloud pervades all of our lives, let’s have a discussion about it that all of us can understand.
Hazel Sheffield is assistant editor of the Columbia Journalism Review and a contributor to Intelligent Life. Her recent posts for the Editors' Blog include A poet's guide to the Frick and I want my song back