To the Cloud

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As more of our documents, photos and personal information depart for the Cloud — a network of remote servers that centralise data storage — this is a good moment to reflect on how Cloud computing may change communications and, possibly, our lives more generally but, also, how it has already changed these things often without our knowing.

Vincent Mosco’s readable book is ambitious in its attempt to simultaneously describe the Cloud — which is a system and a concept in many ways as elusive as its name suggests — as well as provide a critique of it. What he reveals is a gathering storm that lurks behind the silver lining projected in the corporate hype.

Features of Cloud computing that appeared, at first, as convenient — Facebook friends’ phone numbers appearing in phone contacts, or notes made on an iPhone appearing on a desktop computer — take on a more sinister appearance.

The first significant difference about the development of Cloud computing is that, while it has evoked visions of a technological utopia it has none of the democratic impulses of earlier information technology. The Cloud has been dominated from the outset by a small number of big players including Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft whose visions have only ever been about profit and control.

Mosco discusses the way governments, and the US in particular, have enabled monopolisation in Cloud computing as well as avoiding regulation of its activities. Many of us will be familiar with the debates about security and privacy, whether it’s data mining by marketing companies or state spying.

For example, data stored in US data centres — which includes any emails or documents stored with Google or Facebook — can be searched without a warrant. Breaches of the Cloud have resulted in identity theft and the publishing of everything from user credentials to private photographs.

The book covers this but also some less familiar ground, including the environmental impact of Cloud computing, labour issues, and the effect that big data is having on our ways of knowing. Despite attempts to market the Cloud as an ethereal, green technology, companies like Google are tearing up the planet to store information in the Cloud. These data centres have colossal energy requirements and use dirty energy like diesel in their back-up systems to keep servers running.

The computers and servers that support the Cloud are produced using carcinogenic materials and creating millions of tonnes of “e-waste”. One of Apple’s suppliers has killed a river outside Shanghai with its e-waste. The Cloud has been sold as lowering information technology (IT) costs but what this amounts to is just old-fashioned outsourcing by concentrating and centralising services in the Cloud.

Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (AMT) has managed to crowdsource labour outside any kind of regulation, creating digital sweatshops where piecework is offered at the lowest possible rates.

The materiality of the Cloud, in Mosco’s words, “belies the image of an immaterial information age” and looks much more like the industrial capitalism it claims to replace. But what To the Cloud also emphasises is that everywhere, whether it’s office workers in London resisting constant digital surveillance, AMT workers creating software to rate employers, striking workers in China, or hacktivists exposing state secrets, the storm gathers.