Where is my data when it’s in a cloud?

I recently stumbled upon a cool Atlantic piece from a couple of year’s ago by Rebecca Rosen – Clouds: The Most Useful Metaphor of All Time? I was looking for metaphors used to talk about the internet, and of course the cloud is a ubiquitous one. I also find it a confusing one. I own that Kindle book, so why isn’t it on my iPad? or I wrote that note on my phone, so how’d it get in my email drafts? How is it that my cloud is “full?” Although I haven’t invested much time in learning about the internet cloud, Rosen’s Atlantic piece suggested that my confusions are more logical than I gave myself credit for. Clouds are used (both graphically and linguistically) for concepts that are vague and fuzzy:

What is it about clouds that has such sticking power? Clouds get traction as a metaphor because they are shape-shifters, literally. As a result they can stand in for many varied cultural tropes. Want something to represent the one thing marring your otherwise perfect situation? Done. Want to evoke the nostalgic feeling of childhood games of the imagination? Done. Maybe you want to draw a picture of heaven? You’re in luck. Clouds as metaphors pepper our language: every cloud has a silver lining, I’m on cloud nine, his head is in the clouds, there are dark clouds on the horizon. Clouds are the lazy man’s metaphor, a one-image-fits-all solution for your metaphor needs.

But what does this mean!? https://blog.mysms.com/why-use-cloud-services.html

The point of clouds is that they’re vague. And in fact, how much do we really know about them, despite the fact that we see them almost every day? We do often talk about things we don’t understand in terms of other things we don’t understand. For example, to talk about love (a hard-to-understand idea), we often draw on terms from chemistry (an even harder-to-understand one). And even though we don’t really understand the metaphorical domain (chemistry), we feel like we understand the source (love) a little better thanks to our metaphorical use. So it is with clouds. For someone being introduced to the idea of the Internet’s cloud, they might initially get the gist pretty quickly – just as a cloud floats around in the sky, my data is floating around somewhere (or at the least, it’s not solely on my device). But then once you start using your cloud – accumulating books, songs, and documents – your understanding might become foggier. Because how do you get something back when it’s in a cloud? Wait for the rain? Jump on a plane? I’m still trying to figure this one out.

Does technology unite or isolate us?

Warnings of technology’s isolating effects seem to be everywhere. This video (which quotes Alone Togethera really great read on the social effects of technology), presents a pretty thought-provoking depiction of loneliness as a result of new internet-based behaviors and norms like accumulating 500+ “friends” on social networking sites without truly connecting with any. This seems to represent the most widely vocalized opinion.

But today I read a Wired article by Balaji Srinivasan that made a point for the opposite: instead of isolating us, “the technology space” brings many people together. Srinivasan points out:

it is the cloud that has become the destination for an extraordinary mental exodus. Hundreds of millions of people have now migrated to the cloud, spending hours per day working, playing, chatting, and laughing in real-time HD resolution with people thousands of miles away … without knowing their next-door neighbors.

Image: http://www.examiner.com/article/the-dependent-relationship-between-social-and-cloud
Image: http://www.examiner.com/article/the-dependent-relationship-between-social-and-cloud

Just as geographic distance can measure the difference between two points on earth, we can use geodesic distance as a measure of the degrees of separation of two nodes in a social network. Recently, the two measures have continually diverged, as people increasingly connect more with others in the cloud and less with others on the ground.

However, Srinivasan claims that “this discrepancy between our cloud subculture and our physical surroundings will not endure indefinitely.” This is because technology allows us to be more mobile, resulting in a “reorganization of bodies.” In short, people connect online and carry their connections over into the physical world. Some concrete examples: 2 people who meet via an online site come together as a couple; thousands of people come together to Occupy Wall Street or participate in the realization of a little boy’s dream to be Batman; and an increase in communal living situations throughout the world.

What’s the future of cloud-based physical reorganization?

There is no scientific law that prevents 100 people who find each other on the internet from coming together for a month, or 1,000 such people from coming together for a year. And as that increases to 10,000 and 100,000 and beyond, for longer and longer durations, we may begin to see cloud towns, then cloud cities, and ultimately cloud countries materialize out of thin air.

The paradoxical consequences of technology are really intriguing. On the one hand, it can isolate us and enforce anti-social behaviors. On the other, it can bring like-minded people together and reshape our social surroundings.

In a relationship with Google

I recently read this Slate article about the effect that “digital tools” like Google and Evernote have on our memory. Many people suspect that the ability to instantly Google any fact they’ve forgotten might be taking a toll on their memory, based on the adage “use it or lose it.” However, the article argues that the effects are “much weirder than that.”

First the author writes about transactive memory- the use of people around us to store memories. For example, married couples often subconsciously divide up the memory tasks- “the husband knows the in-laws’ birthdays and where the spare light bulbs are kept; the wife knows the bank account numbers and how to program the TiVo… Together, they know a lot. Separately, less so.”

One clever study has found that we’ve begun to treat technology as our memory spouses. Researcher Betsey Sparrow gave subjects sentences of random trivia, like “an ostrich’s eye is bigger than its brain,” and either told them the facts would not be saved or that they would be saved, and specified in which folder they’d be saved in. When tested a few days later, those who were told the computer would save the facts were less likely to remember the facts than those who were told the computer would not save them. However, when she asked the students to remember whether a fact had been saved or erased, they were better at recalling the instances in which the facts had been saved in a particular folder. Thus, she argues, a different memory is strengthened in the cases in which we know information is being saved- specifically, the knowledge where we can re-find that info later.

Pretty soon...
Pretty soon…

While the argument doesn’t make the case that we should outsource all our memories as long we know where they’ve been outsourced to, it does emphasize that technology is not ruining our memories. In fact, there are benefits to knowing that information is stored digitally, such as the completeness of the information they store (for example, a quick stop at Wikipedia is bound to turn up way more info than you were actually wondering about, for better or for worse).

This feels a lot like the extended mind hypothesis – that the brain is not the home of all our knowledge. If I save some thoughts in a document on my computer and know exactly how to access them but may not be able to exactly reproduce the thoughts without prompting, are they a part of my mind?

Alone Together

One of my best friends, who modestly wishes to remain anonymous, wrote this great review of one of my favorite books, Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together:

Tethered to my game of Moxie on my iPhone 4S, I find myself being bothered by the fact that I should be productive. Reluctantly, I move to another digital device, my iPad, on which I choose to draft my post. That will make it easier for me to put this together without retyping, while I spend my Friday afternoon of Labor Day weekend, wanting to sit in my yard at my pool. After I am satisfied with my draft, I can email it to the blog, not having to inconvenience myself with handwriting, rewriting, typing, printing, and mailing it. A woman of the digital age, I am.

I have wanted to write a post for this blog and my topic of choice is about a book I just finished reading – Alone Together by Sherry Turkle. There are many themes in this book, but the takeaway for me is about the use of digital devices which have such appeal to humans that we are rapidly and constantly creating significant culture changes.

We are constantly connected. Image: commons.wikimedia.org
We are constantly connected to others via digital devices.
Image: commons.wikimedia.org

The discussion is based on human behavior – how, how much, and why people are changing the ways in which we communicate, the way we play, interact with others, whom we consider to be friends, the loss of intimacy and privacy, the changes to etiquette, and basically, the enthusiastic volunteerism that is allowing the culture changes to occur. The book also covers some of the discontent that our use of our devices creates. People feel less attached, but have more attachments; people know they are less real in terms of online profiles, and they give less attention to interactions, all the while they realize that the online buddies may not be the same people offline, (how can this be satisfying?) and that they, too, are not receiving full attention in their digital interactions. And, they spend more of their precious time being with, and grooming their profiles for their online acquaintances.

There are many points to ponder, and my feel was that there is almost a mourning for “the way we were.”   I thought, sometimes, that the changes are not necessarily detrimental. In one example of this, people point out that roboticized companions for the elderly, and roboticized childcare  providers can be better than people, in some cases – people who can be hurtful and neglectful. No doubt, there are different views on the benefits and downfalls of our digital age behaviors. And there are many questions that remain to be answered.

Here, elderly patients appear to be enjoying the company of Paro, a robotic seal. Image: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704463504575301051844937276.html
Elderly patients appear to be enjoying the company of Paro, a robotic seal.
Image: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704463504575301051844937276.html

Here are two educational / clinical questions I have thought about relative to our culture shift caused by our behavior during the digital age: we are seemingly in an age of  “Attention Deficit” more and more. I say this as a parent and a teacher. I do wonder if we are preventing or even working against the development of the ability to focus. Are we untraining our attention spans, will we have less need for sustained attention, and will we evolve accordingly? In addition, we recognize far more social difficulties as disorders than ever before, under diagnoses related to the autism spectrum.  Are we damaging the natural instinct to be social creatures who intuitively learn unwritten social rules for the purpose of displaying social decorum and developing relationships? For that matter, are we helping the socially challenged child by providing him with ways to be alone, playing on tablets in the name of education, and on video game platforms for recreation? These questions are just a bit of “What’s in this Brain.”