Against “cloud computing”

Part of my opposition to online education is that it seems to me to be a solution in search of a problem. One can imagine situations where it would be necessary or helpful — bringing education to the handicapped, or to rural communities, etc. — but the motivation for a disruptive transformation of the normal method of education seems to be lacking. As I frequently ask in this connection: is there a sudden shortage of rooms with chairs?

Similarly with cloud computing. I use Dropbox out of convenience, as I am often moving between computers — but I could easily have set up a similar system myself without involving a third party. One could say that the remote backup is helpful in the unlikely event that all three of my machines simultaneously fail, but if we’re taking longshot scenarios like that into account, Dropbox could also drop off the face of the earth. If I wanted to make my system more robust, I could easily purchase four or five cheap network hard drives and hide them in various places in my apartment and office. I could even set them to power up only when the backup is in progress, which is certainly more environmentally sound than the ridiculous server farms that all the big “cloud computing” operations use.

For application delivery, it’s even more ridiculous. Again, one can imagine scenarios where the equivalent of logging into the mainframe would be preferable to running something on your own hardware — but basic office software is far from falling into that category. And there are clear disadvantages, since an internet connection might be unreliable or totally unavailable, etc. (Certainly all of us who have used web-based “course management software” know that there are huge drawbacks to having to load a new webpage every damn time you want to do anything.)

This seems to be the kind of thing discussed in this op-ed about ebooks — a heedless embrace of new technology just because it’s new. His example of the rush to build an entire civilization around cars is particularly poignant, but one could say the same thing of the rise of cell phones over against land lines (which basically destroyed the experience of, you know, talking on the phone), or the rise of processed food (which provides admirable consistency and dependability, but at the cost of flavor and nutritional value), etc.

I sometimes wonder if the worst thing about the capitalist system is precisely what is most touted as its biggest benefit: the drive to constant innovation. In principle, it sounds great, but the dynamics of the system mean that every new innovation is bound to be implemented in the most thoughtless possible way — repeating over and over again the foolishness of tearing out public transit lines because it would be so cool if everyone had their own individual car!

At the same time, it’s impossible for me to envision an agency that would make decisions on how best to use new technologies, etc.

14 thoughts on “Against “cloud computing”

  1. I agree in spirit, but I’m not sure Dropbox is the best target. In the event of a sudden Dropbox meltdown, at least you have local copies on all of your devices. And you make your custom solution sound trivial, despite the costs of networked drives, the time and expertise needed to set them up, future maintenance, etc. Of course, Dropbox has its own implicit (privacy, stability) concerns as a ‘free’ service, but I’m sure most would opt for a Dropbox account vs. a custom solution.

    Amazon and Google are scarier prospects. When Amazon’s hosting service goes down, half the Internet blinks out. And getting shut out of one’s Gmail account initiates a nightmare Kafkaesque scenario of identification validation. And it seems universities are moving more toward Google’s solutions by adopting Mail and Docs in lieu of custom platforms (mine did).

  2. It seems to me that programs with a very specific focus for a very specific population that may not be geographically convenient for traditional classes lends itself to an online format. I teach a course occasionally for Defiance College’s Design for Leadership program, which is an online program in Religious Education, specifically for United Church of Christ religious educators and taught with UCC values, etc. The program can lead to a certificate, associates, or bachelor’s degree in R.E. My students have been all over the country, and outside of the US, in various situations.

    But this is an unusual situation, and your point is taken: unless something is very specific or offers a very particular benefit, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. I can see why it is convenient to individuals in certain life situations, but if child care, etc., were offered or made more available, or classes offered on evenings and weekends, much of the “problem” would be “solved.”

  3. unless something is very specific or offers a very particular benefit, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. I can see why it is convenient to individuals…

    I’ve found it telling that the MOOC success story that I’ve encountered far more than any other is a group of online computer science courses offered by Stanford. I don’t doubt its success, but people seem to forget that “continuing professional education” has been a thing in IT for about as long as IT has existed. The Stanford course seems to be essentially replacing those Teach Yourself X books that take up yards of shelf space in the computer section of Barnes & Noble. Additionally, all the people I’ve encountered who took one of the courses and liked it were adults with Bachelor’s degrees and a few years of professional experience.

    Ir seems like a bit of a stretch to extrapolate from that and conclude that MOOCs can easily replace teaching Virgil to a bunch of 18 year olds.

  4. True, also, for film, where 35mm is being replaced by non-standardized digital formats very quickly, and causing lots of problems. Equipment has to be replaced and employees need to be retrained, even though the new equipment will likely be obsolete in a few years. Plus, Hollywood studios are freaking out about piracy, so there’s a complex anti-copying scheme in place involving various pass codes transmitted by various parties, complicating distribution (not making it “easier” compared to distributing 35mm reels) and causing films to sometimes not play at all. (This happened, most recently, at the New York Film Festival, where the projectionist got “locked out” of his digital copy of the new Brian de Palma film and the screening had to be canceled.) Nothing is really wrong with 35mm as a format, but James Cameron doesn’t like it, so it’s being discontinued.

    I would offer some tepid defenses of ebooks, since I work with ebooks, but Arne Duncan’s views on the matter are so wrong-headed I’m not even going to try.

  5. Cloud computing makes some sense if you have some computing to do that requires significant resources, and you don’t want to have to operate your own server farm. I’m less convinced that it has much to offer individual users. This site is of course hosted on WordPress’s servers, running their software – after many years of maintaining my own WordPress / Drupal / Octopress blog on a Dreamhost account, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s really not worth it unless you have some quite specialised requirements. The other cloud service that I think is genuinely useful to many people and organisations is github – again, I could host my own git repository, but there’s very little reason to, and even if I did I’d probably mirror it on github as well.

  6. Right, there are things that are great about cloud computing and some natural applications — but this idea that individual end users should “live in the cloud” for everything seems like it’s not much use and could potentially have very negative consequences (hey, why not give a random for-profit company literally all your data?!).

  7. I was really enjoying the universal cloud-jukebox (uploading all my tunes to Google Music, augmenting with using Spotify) until I lost my unlimited data plan.

    (Actually, that’s not even true — I really don’t enjoy music as much since it all became available all of the time. I much preferred listen to stuff that I had had to find through a limited number of avenues and choose with a limited amount of resources. This transition happened at the same time that I stopped being young, so I’m not entirely confident it’s technological at root.)

    But back off Dropbox. I love that shit.

  8. It would actually be quite difficult for you to do what Dropbox does, but I’ll certainly admit that you could fairly easily do something good enough. However, this bit doesn’t make much sense to me: “which is certainly more environmentally sound than the ridiculous server farms that all the big “cloud computing” operations use.”. The server farms take a lot of cooling, etc., because they’re constantly in use, because they’re not just backups whose contents are occasionally retrieved, but actively computing things for a variety of users at, essentially, all hours—and there are benefits of scale here (a bunch of people can all use just a slice of one physical computer, rather than having to run their own; the company putting the datacenter together can (and is motivated to) spend time to attend to the power consumption of the whole thing, which a bunch of individuals running a bunch of small servers would be less likely to do).

    The idea that we should all put all our data on someone servers distributed throughout the country or the world is kind of silly, but there’s more to cloud computing than that. It is, for instance, easier, if you’re setting up some kind of internet business that has to handle a fair amount of traffic, than learning all about all the aspects of putting the hardware together yourself.

  9. “As I frequently ask in this connection: is there a sudden shortage of rooms with chairs?”

    Probably not for those that can afford to get to those rooms and pay their way into those chairs.

    Maybe that’s not a big problem in the US but it sure is a problem in other parts of the world.

  10. On online education: I think you’re largely right. The places which lack means to get physical infrastructure are likely to also lack virtual infrastructure (or worse, cater only to those who can afford to access the education privately). You can look at online education as the transferral of educational payment to private persons (like private insurance).
    However, there is the best of both worlds: online lectures that students access outside class so that the valuable contact time with teachers (at tables and on chairs) can be more usefully spent on supervision and interpretation rather than the mere transference of information.
    (You could even end up with a kind of Oxbridge situation, whereby students meet a supervisor once a week in a tiny group of 1-3 students, and the supervisor advises them which online lecture courses to follow and assigns tasks to be done in their absence…)
    So: online lectures, classroom supervision please!

  11. MOOC proponents in the U.S. often list the problem they’re trying to solve as basically a cost one: “higher education is very expensive”. So it’s not that there aren’t enough chairs, but that the chairs cost a student $30,000/yr to gain access to. Now as for why that’s the case, and whether this is the best solution to it…

  12. If cutting labor costs were the key to bringing down tuition, the education expense problem would’ve been solve a billion times over by now.

    I still think in-person lectures are preferable, because there are fewer distractions and peer pressure might lead them to pay more attention, etc. Kind of like going to see a movie in the theater vs. watching it at home — I like having the latter as an option, but if I’m really serious about watching a movie, I’m going to prefer the theater.

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