Part of the global push towards the privatization of the “general intellect” is the recent trend in the organization of cyberspace towards so-called “cloud computing.” Little more than a decade ago, a computer was a big box on one’s desk, and downloading was done with floppy disks and USB sticks. Today, we no longer need such cumbersome individual computers, since cloud computing is Internet-based, i.e., software and information are provided to computers or smartphones on demand, in the guise of web-based tools or applications that users can access and use through browsers as if they were programs installed on their own computer. In this way, we can access information from wherever we are in the world, on any computer, with smartphones literally putting this access into our pocket.
We already participate in cloud computing when we run searches and get millions of results in a fraction of a second — the search process is performed by thousands of connected computers sharing resources in the cloud. Similarly, Google Books makes millions of digitized works available any time, anywhere around the world. Not to mention the new level of socialization opened up by smartphones: today a smartphone will typically include a more powerful processor than that of the standard big box PC of only a couple of years ago. Plus it is connected to the Internet, so that I can not only access multiple programs and immense amounts of data, but also instantly exchange voice messages or video clips, and coordinate collective decisions, etc.
This wonderful new world, however, represents only one side of the story, which as a whole reads like the well-known doctor joke: “first the good news, then the bad news.” Users today access programs and software maintained far away in climate-controlled rooms housing thousands of computers. To quote from a propaganda-text on cloud computing: “Details are abstracted from consumers, who no longer have need for expertise in, or control over, the technology infrastructure ‘in the cloud’ that supports them.”
[Extract. Appeared in Inside Higher Ed, on May 2nd, 2011. (full text).]