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Will Styler

Associate Teaching Professor of Linguistics at UC San Diego

Director of UCSD's Computational Social Science Program

“In the cloud”, or on somebody else’s computer?

This was originally posted on my blog, Notes from a Linguistic Mystic in 2011. See all posts

So, I’ve been noticing a strong uptick in the use of “the cloud” to refer to online, decentralized storage, computing and program-hosting lately. No shortage of companies are talking about their “cloud computing” services (including my hosting company, Joyent), and it’s become one of those “gotta have it” corporate buzzwords, and it seems like no company’s marketing people will let them release a website, product or service which isn’t in some way cloudy.

This phenomenon itself isn’t noteworthy from a linguistic standpoint (“Web 2.0” seems to have been the same sort of trendy buzzword at some point), but it occurred to me today that for many less-tech-saavy users, this “in the cloud” phrasing might actually be affecting how people view these services, and I think that might be why companies have latched onto this term so strongly.

Let’s take, for example, Apple’s coming “iCloud” information hosting service. Apple is increasingly targeting the non-tech-saavy crowd, and this service, like most of their recent developments, is meant to be largely transparent to the end user. Once you’ve signed up, iCloud will take your music, your photos, your documents, your books, your backups, your contacts, calendars and mail, and any additional information you add in through third party programs, and make it instantly available on all of your devices. As they put it on their own website: “Create a document, iCloud stores it, and pushes it to your devices”. Bam. Magic. You turn the service on and suddenly your data is on all of your devices. Who wouldn’t want that?

A rose by any other name…

They’re doing something linguistically fascinating, though: they make no mention of their machines, servers, databases or storage (at least on the user-facing sites). You create, something cloudy happens, it’s on all your machines. They’ve de-emphasized the middle step. Mind you, Apple’s not the only “cloud” provider to do this (Google Docs de-emphasizes the middle step too), but Apple is certainly the most flagrant. But why bother? Why de-emphasize?

Well, I’ve been toying around with a new hobby. Whenever somebody says “in the cloud”, I’ve found it entertaining to replace it with “on somebody else’s computer”. This simple replacement brings me much joy in the absurdity it creates and how oddly different it makes the act sound:

“Our main working copy of the paper is on somebody else’s computer for group editing, but it’s password protected so nobody but us can edit it”

“My data is safe, I store my address book, mail, passwords, documents and photos on somebody else’s computer.”

“Oh, don’t worry, all of our business information is backed up on somebody else’s computer.”

When put like that, we’re emphasizing the storage, the step that Apple and Google and most of the other cloud providers don’t really want you to think about too much. We’re emphasizing the fact that your data is sitting on a hard drive in another state, watched by a sysadmin who you don’t know. We’re emphasizing that when you put something on the cloud, it’s no longer just yours, and whereas naive users might not hesitate to put something into an amorphous cloud, actually transferring their data onto another computer might tickle enough of their sense of privacy to make them hesitate to upload those bank statements or that racy note from a lover.

In addition, we emphasize the fact that the data is there for the cloud provider to use per the TOS. How much do you think that the recording industry would pay to analyze en masse the music library of hundreds of thousands of iGadget users, even if just for market research? How valuable would it be for a website to figure out where to advertise by asking a company storing passwords “in the cloud” which sites are also visited by people who have stored passwords for their site?

Simply put, putting your data “in the cloud” is amorphous. It’s a mystery, but at the end of it, it just works. Putting your data on somebody else’s computer can get the same ends, but it forces you to think about your data in between your machine and your other devices.

Clouds aren’t necessarily bad

This may sound like a paranoid luddite’s rant, but I use the cloud. I currently use MobileMe, Apple’s current iCloud equivalent, for calendar and address book syncing. I use DropBox to keep my grocery list current across all my devices. I have an SFTP provider for storing backups of my data between at-home backups, and in case of emergency. The cloud can provide, in addition to convenience, a type of security against loss. As a friend of mine pointed out on Google+ (a cloud app):

Somebody else’s computer, with extensive redundancy and backup systems, which makes it much less likely to be lost if my house burns down. It is one kind of security. Not the “no one else will look at it” kind, but the “I won’t lose it in a domestic disaster” kind.

This is certainly true, and one of the best arguments for decentralized, cloud-like computing. Data on my computer in my backpack is fleeting. Data on a well-backed-up server in Dropbox’s massive datacenter is much less likely to be dropped, stolen, lit on fire or broken. These services have a use, whether convenience, ease-of-use for non-tech users, decentralization, or simply as an offsite backup of your data.

The techies who have read this far are doubtless thinking “Come on, I knew this already”. Of course data stored in the cloud is stored on somebody else’s computers. Heck, geeks like myself can likely picture server farms, maybe even imagining the mass storage required. They have a good idea of what sorts of things cloud providers can and can’t do across petabytes of data.

It’s not like I’m blowing the whistle on a massive conspiracy here. Anybody who has thought more than 20 minutes about the idea of a cloud knows that information has to go somewhere, and has deduced that presumably, it’s sitting on somebody else’s computer. Apple’s not choosing to skirt the issue so they can “pull a fast one” on the entire internet, they’re doing it because it’s less intimidating to new users. Google Docs is neglecting to mention their servers because they don’t need to. That’s not why you should be using the phrase “on somebody else’s computer”.

We should be talking about uploading your documents onto somebody else’s computer with grandma when she gets her new laptop and decides that that “iCloud” folder is just like her hard drive. We should be discussing storing information on somebody else’s computer for the clueless CFO who wants to upload the company’s records onto DropBox to be able to work on them from his new iPad.

We should be talking about “the cloud” as storing information on somebody else’s computer so that people will think, if only for a second, about whether they care that that picture, document, or file is something they would be OK with storing on somebody else’s computer.

Because TOSes, “privacy policies”, talking around the issue and other calming language aside, that’s what the cloud is. It’s a vast collection of other people’s computers, and in order to decide intelligently whether you want your data there, you need to know where “there” is.