I should perhaps begin by saying that I am as big a fan of the Net and the Web and the whole expanding “information universe” as anyone you are likely to meet. I find myself online all the time, mining for data, merrily skipping from one site to the next, passing the time of day after day (and night after night) in scattershot dalliances (sampling this and sampling that in a virtual delirium of free association), deploying my trove of finds in ever more elaborate collages of discovery (or is it recovery?) of my own. And yet... and yet...
As a professional storyteller, I suffer the occasional compunction, a tug of misgiving about the whole existence of that vast cloud of data, as we’ve all now taken to calling it—its character, its purpose, its implications. For starters, that very word. Should such an exponentially compounding explosion of data even be likened to anything so comforting as a fluffy lamb-white “cloud”? Isn’t it more like a churning volcanic eruption, a great seething spewing-forth of material - an upwelling vision so mesmerizingly beautiful in itself, granted, that we can hardly take our eyes off it (that is, perhaps, till the heat blast comes and sweeps us away)?
My misgivings, though, are more than merely linguistic. There is as well, for example, the problem of the insubstantiality of that entire digital spew, its sheer desperate impermanence. Nothing in this world, of course, has ever been completely permanent; still, it seems that across the centuries the means by which we preserve our data have been becoming less and less so with each passing iteration. (“When it comes to permanence,” as my friend Blaise Aguera y Arcas, the founding force behind the photo-stitching application Photosynth, is fond of saying, “the Rosetta Stone is the Rosetta Stone—and it’s been all downhill since then.”)
It’s not just that hardware keeps getting replaced, such that yesterday’s delivery devices are superannuated to the point where one no longer has equipment capable of decoding old cassettes, floppy discs, zip drives, or even those lovely vinyl records uselessly arrayed in the cupboard below your CD player (assuming, that is, that you still have a CD player). There’s also the relentless “progress” of software. When the Y2K crisis was pending, there was barely anyone left who sufficiently understood how to program COBOL—old geezers had to be pulled from retirement to worry out code deposited just a few decades earlier. And don’t even get me started about my WordPerfect files from less than 10 years ago.
Which, of course, is where the cloud comes in, or so its proponents assure us. No need to worry anymore about the grossly material question of equipment. The information will live on in multiple, continually upgraded domains. And the software? Why, that too will be continually upgraded. Only the data will remain consistent, an eternal form maintained within the roiling cloud.
And yet... Why should the cloud behave any differently than every other conceptual/technical breakthrough has so far? Consider, for example, the case of my friend Erin Hogan, who some years ago posted a marvelous piece about the paintings of Barnett Newman on a website called Artkrush. The other day, she wanted to refer back to the piece, so she went to the Artkrush site, but it had ceased to be. The original “draft” of her essay is on a hard drive from three computers back. The piece had migrated to a cloud of an altogether different order, and it lives (if at all) with the Choir Eternal. Can anyone doubt that similar sorts of problems will afflict anyone wanting to go back and review a favorite Kindle title five years from now? Who knows how long Amazon itself will continue to exist before it gets superceded by the next great killer-app store? Netscape, anyone?single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.