< Cloud Atlas


Friday, January 09, 2009

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Once, not so long ago, your computer was a box that you loaded with stuff. Say you wanted to use your PC to prepare your taxes. You had to buy and install costly and complicated tax preparation software. Away from home during tax season? Tough break. Computer crash wipe out your old filings? Again, tough break. Same thing at work. Each company paid for its own expensive, self-contained network infrastructure. But those days are quietly passing. Now our computers aren't boxes, they're doors we walk through to take care of business remotely. Increasingly, we do our taxes with software we didn't buy, remotely. We do our banking remotely, store our photographs and music remotely. Many of us use Hotmail and Gmail, both operated remotely. It’s called “cloud computing,” and it marks a paradigm shift. Nicholas Carr is the author of The Big Switch: Rewiring the World from Edison to Google, and he likens it to that moment when Americans abandoned their individual steam or wind-powered generators and hooked themselves up to the nation’s electrical grid. For his book, Carr created a composite character named Geoff whose creativity took flight when he soared up into that cloud.

NICHOLAS CARR: Geoff is a guy who once, a few years ago, tried to put together a website. He’s a fan of Mustang cars. And it was very expensive and time-consuming, and he had to buy the software and the equipment, and he gave it up. It was just too hard to do. With cloud computing now, Geoff can go to a blog site running on somebody else’s computer, set up a blog very easily. He can then go to other sites that will feed photographs or music into his blog site. He can go to Google and set up an ad account and run ads on his site. And in just a few minutes, and for no cost whatsoever, he can develop this rich media outlet online that was impossible to do before you had all these cloud computing services to meld into whatever shape or form you wanted to meld them into.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's talk about the drawbacks of cloud computing for the average consumer. I mean, if I've got my communication and my banking on somebody else’s server out there in the clouds, privacy has to be a huge concern. Aren't you worried about having so much personal information out in the ether?

NICHOLAS CARR: Sure I'm concerned, not only just about the data we store about our bank accounts, and so forth. You know, if you look at the search terms that somebody looks for on Google over time, you basically get an incredibly clear picture [LAUGHS] of who that person is, because, you know, we search for our whole lives basically online. And all of that information is being stored in central databases. On the other hand – and I think we all talk about being concerned about privacy – but really when you look at our behavior online, we don't seem to care much, really, because we continue to put all this information up on the Net. And the reason we do it is because in return we get better search results. You get better content geared toward your particular needs. You get more personalized advertising. The bad side is you are disclosing incredibly personal information about yourself and you’re trusting that that information will never be abused. You know, my fear is that we might, in the end, find that that trust is misplaced.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: On that subject who’s 4417749?

NICHOLAS CARR: That is Thelma Arnold, who had an America Online account, and at some point in the last couple of years, America Online decided, for very good reasons, to release to the academic community the search logs of people who used its service. And what it did was it stripped their names out and just replaced them with a number. It did it so researchers could better understand how people searched and maybe make better search engines. And so, what happened was after AOL released a batch of these search logs, a couple of reporters from The New York Times took one of the numbers and looked at all the terms, most of which were very innocuous - I think she was, you know, in her 60s, a widow named Thelma Arnold living in Georgia - and the next day, there’s her picture on the front cover of The New York Times. And they interviewed her, and she said, here’s my entire life laid out [LAUGHS] in a series of search terms.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And although Thelma Arnold was shocked, at least she wasn't embarrassed. As you write in your book, “Subscriber 59920 searched for what a neck looked like after it had been strangled, and rope to use to hogtie someone.” That guy – [LAUGHING] I'm assuming it’s a guy - may have some serious cause for concern if a name is ever attached to it. What’s the logical next step if users seem willing to surrender so much information for the sake of convenience, if a private company comes to know me perhaps better than I know myself?

NICHOLAS CARR: My worry is that we'll never know when we're being manipulated, when our company’s so adept at analyzing information about us that they can begin to give us stimuli and information that they know will produce a certain kind of behavior, a - you know, an instinct to buy something or to look in one particular way.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, we were talking in the office about Blu-ray, the new DVD format, and how some people are already predicting a very short life for it because of the ease and increasing quality of downloaded movies. No more DVD boxes in the house, no more CDs because of music we get from the Web, no more books once they're all downloadable and deliverable onto your Kindle. Have you thought about the impact to culture and maybe to our own psyches of no longer surrounding ourselves with the stuff that we love, but just storing it in the cloud?

NICHOLAS CARR: Yeah, that’s an area I'm researching now because I think, you know, more and more that’s where we go to find everything we want to use. My fear is that we're substituting kind of the literary mind, which was a mind that was patient, could concentrate on a single line of reading for an extended period of time; we're replacing that mind with kind of the mind that the Internet is encouraging in us, which is a mind that wants to seek out as much information as quickly as possible. And it strikes me that a price we might have to pay for this enormous convenience and to have all this information at our fingertips is the loss of our ability to concentrate or be contemplative, those things that require really sustained concentration. There’s no reward for that kind of behavior on the Internet. And my guess is we're going to see a fairly profound shift in how we define intellect and how we define culture as we move to getting everything, more or less, through this one medium of the Internet.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Nicholas, thank you so much.

NICHOLAS CARR: Oh, thank you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Nicholas Carr is the author of The Big Switch: Rewiring the World from Edison to Google, just out in paperback.