#sn09 Zittrain’s tale of 3 clouds

At the recent Supernova conference (link), thought leaders discussed the network age, and what happens when “control moves to the edge”. But does it move to the edge? At Supernova, Harvard Law School professor Jonathan Zittrain dissected the ‘computing cloud”. His ‘tale of three clouds’ presents a critical view of these ephemeral structures.

The most prevailing cloud notion is the computing cloud, as exemplified by Google’s and Amazon’s offerings. This is the cloud that solves reliability and scalability problems. Putting your application in the cloud instead of on your own servers is like moving from your own answering machine to voicemail. This is generally a good solution, as long as we can figure out a good exit strategy.

The second cloud we’ll have to deal with creeps up from behind, so to speak. It is the cloud of services that is, not so openly, attached to devices like the iPhone and the Kindle. You think you own these devices, which in a legal sense you do. Yet, you do not control what software is on it. If you write an application for your iPhone, you cannot share it directly with your friend. It has to go through Apple’s AppStore, which has a track record of arbitrarily refusing applications. Similarly, you think you may own the e-books on your Kindle, but there is a documented case where Amazon pulled such a book away from all existing Kindle’s. So from an asset management perspective, Apple and Amazon ‘own’ your devices.

Finally, the third cloud Zittrain identifies is not a computer cloud at all, even though it is facilitated by computers. It is the world of services like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, where human information processing jobs such as pattern recognition are parceled out into very small chunks. There are great and positive examples of it, but it also lends itself to various sorts of misuse. The simplest of these is that this human computing cloud can be a kind of sweat shop, where very repetitive low-pay jobs are being done. There is also evidence that this cloud is used for deceptive purposes, such as writing lots of fictitious reviews on forums and circumventing anti-spam measures.

Is there something we should do about it? I doubt if we can. Technological development oftentimes is like opening Pandora’s box. We’ll have to learn to live with it, and keep hoping.

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