Saturday, August 10, 2013

Partly Cloudy

So I've spent a whole lot of time recently trying to catch up. Not to any one thing, in particular, but more like catching up to the entire world that's been moving swiftly on without me for what feels like too long. Some examples of the things I've been catching up on include the books I should have read years ago were I a normal specimen of the type of scholar I am (hello, Heart of Darkness), the television shows people told me I had to watch sometime between 2010 and 2011 (Downton Abbey is as rad, somehow, as everyone says), a giant pile of writing and website-related material including this poor neglected blog, the functionality of my new digital SLR camera which baffled me at first with its odd little 18-55mm kit lens that acted like a zoom, but really only actually serves as an adjustable close and short-range lens and on top of that had no aperture ring thereby sending me scrambling to the library to figure out what the hell happened to manual photography in the 20 years since I've done it, and finally, I've dipped my toes into the world of cloud computing.

"Dude," you say. "Cloud computing was a new thing like seven years ago."

Photo by Second Mouse @flickr
Dude, I reply, I have a six and a half year old. You do the math. So I'm sure that in true aging dad-guy fashion I'm far, far behind in expressing my astonishment at how terrific a technology it is, but bear with me. The last two years have been a slog
through a graduate degree and I barely took my head out of my books and my writing to look around and notice that I'm literally living in the future. I parked my car this morning when I went to the Evanston Public Library with John, and we parked directly in front of a recharging station for all-electric cars. Not only was there a station there; there were cars parked at it, using it. I took a step back and snapped a photo of it, trying to wrap my head for a moment around the reality of such a futuristic gadget juxtaposed with such a mundane, or even perhaps waning, institution, especially when the charging station appeared to be quasi-municipal (I think it's probably one of the IgoCars-sponsored things, but there didn't appear to be any reason a privately owned car couldn't park there or use the station). I have lived most of my young adulthood under the general cynical assumption that big business and the Baby Boomers had almost certainly used up all of the inheritable legacies of the world that they could not overtly hoard, and then gang-raped the economy to protect their fortunes and retirement funds so
thoroughly that any high-tech space-age technology we were shown in Popular Science when we were kids was pushed off the table for my lifetime. With a few exceptions, like Napster or Youtube which were/are incredibly useful and seem not to carry much of the corporate come-hither-Benjamins leer, I assumed that we only had a ghost of a chance of ever seeing any of it if a Boomer-run company figured out a way to make a shitload of money off of us by implementing it.

And yet I'm writing this right now from a keyboard-equipped iPad that's smaller and lighter than a library book, and it's connected to my Macbook and my iPhone with something I'm just now bothering to even turn on. The Cloud, it turns out, is very, very cheap. Democratizingly cheap, even. It might be a different sort of cynicism to compare the relative costs of things, but if there's a consumer price index that includes necessities both creature and intellectual, the Cloud does magical, Five Forks-quality things at Happy Meal prices. I am not speaking figuratively here; Google Drive is free, Dropbox is free, iMessage makes texting (telecom's biggest screw-job in history) free. Gutenberg.com and Librivox.com put free texts and audiobooks at your fingertips without even having to own the computer you're listening to/reading them on. Even Spotify and iCloud are mostly free, unless you want premium features and even if you do you're talking about Happy Meal prices at worst. Spotify is $10 a month if you want it on your phone or iPad. More space on iCloud because you're tired of backing up your photos on your hard drive is $20 a year. If you're feeling stingy, Flickr offers a terabyte-a unit of storage unthinkably huge when I was in college-to every user, free. Netflix is $7.99 per month for more television and movies than you could ever watch. If you need something from your home or work computer, you can remotely control it free from any other computer, or your mobile device, with Logmein.

I'm not going to lie, I sprang for a few of the premium niceties. I bought the $10 Pages app so I could actually work on Word documents on iCloud. I tried out Audible briefly for new audiobooks before canceling it because it doesn't yet have a big enough library to justify the $14.99 pricetag. But really, aside from the internet access itself, those three little radar bars in the upper left hand corner, and the devices to access them from, cloud computing applications are the new great equalizer. They let the basic, entry level devices do what used to be purely the realm of the most expensive ones. With cloud-based mobile devices, there's never any need to use anything but the seamless calendar/reminders/messenger, and photo tools included with the iOS. I never have to buy the biggest iPad or iPhone, or even the laptop or desktop with the biggest storage capacity again. There's nothing to store on my end except the very largest video files, which live on backed-up external hard drives anyway. I can reduce my regular data hard drive backups from every two weeks on a neurotic "I'm terrified of losing my work" regimen to basically once a year. If Apple and Google and Flickr and Dropbox with their clean-room, climate controlled server farms can't reliably back up my data, I might as well stop fooling myself that the $60 external hard drive I bought at Office Max is a safer option. I might as well hide my files under my mattress.

I guess the point of writing this isn't so much to describe what cloud computing can do. Everyone from the year 2007 already knows this. I just wanted to take a moment to appreciate the fact that somehow, like the electric cars, a technology that doesn't seem blatantly bent on maintaining the status quo or lining the pockets of the people who have a stranglehold on the world's resources and influence, is now not just in a magazine about how awesome our grandchildren's lives are going to be, but is actually in my hands, under my fingertips, right now as I type this. Maybe there's hope for flying cars after all. I'm still young.

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