The Cloud's My-Mom-Cleaned-My-Room Problem

By Alexis C. Madrigal

Welcome to the era of parental computing, or how the cloud makes children of us all

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When your mom cleans your room, it's a mixed bag. The clothes are in the drawers and the papers are straight, but you can't find anything and there is the distinct possibility that she found out whatever illegal (or at least immoral) material you had stashed away under the mattress.

This is not a short reflection on my childhood (neither of my parents was the room-cleaning type) but a metaphor for the set of web services we call the cloud. We all know the feeling of logging into Facebook/Tumblr/Twitter/Netflix/Pandora/Gmail and realizing that the interface has changed. Maybe the company's internal testing says the new interface is better organized, but dang -- we'd gotten used to the last one and we liked it. "New Twitter? But I liked Old Twitter!" we cry.

We've always been dependent on software providers to create the digital spaces we inhabit, but when your email and documents and music are in the cloud, you're giving up the lock on the door and allowing changes to be made on the schedule of the parent. He or she may clean up or buy you a new desk. He or she may take away the car or decide you can't do something you think you should be able to.

Tech 2020 Netflix, Twitter, and Google make unasked-for, unanticipated, and unstoppable change in their products, which also happen to be our work and play spaces. Whether or not people like what the change did, they don't like how it happened. Facebook notoriously pushes changes out, most recently the new News Feed and Timeline profile pages. While they think of it as improving their product, in effect, they redesign what has become the default Internet startup screen for millions without asking.

So, of course people howl their protests. They remind us that we're all just children in the eyes of the cloud services provider and as long as we're under their roof, we play by their rules. At a time when trust in all kinds of civic institutions is at an all-time low, we place a lot of faith in our cloud services to do what is goodly and just. We get so upset with Facebook changes because they spark cognitive dissonance: I believe I do not trust Facebook but I act as if I trust Facebook by giving them my data. The changes let you feel how Mark Zuckerberg's crew has hacked your social brain. Zuckerberg believes Facebook is creating "a more open and connected" society. In other words, he's doing it all for your own good.

The more I think about it, the more I think the cloud may portend the rise of a new kind of experience: parental computing. It will mean the end of personal computing, which itself evolved out of the vastly different computing paradigm that preceded it.

Now, more and more of the computing power we use comes from a CPU across the Internet. We no longer own our digital homes. Instead, we live rent-free with our parents.

We think of the term 'personal computing' as a natural label for what we do with our machines, but for decades computers were seen as anything *but* personal. Back in the 1960s, IBM's massive mainframes were used for crunching military numbers, not writing Christmas letters. Through the 1970s, a small number of people mostly clustered around the Bay Area, decided that they wanted to make the computer mean something for individuals. Contemporaneously, the ability to have your own computer instead of running programs through a 'dumb' terminal became more realistic. By the early 1980s, due to Moore's Law computers had become small and cheap enough for entrepreneurs like Apple's Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak to promote computing for the people. Apple's branding and products were the most visible sign of this powerful rhetorical movement. We began to call our desktops "personal computers" rather than something more narrowly descriptive like once-popular term microcomputer.

The personal computing era rose at a time when bandwidth was very constrained. Software ran locally and most individuals' computers were not hooked up to networks. Your computer *was* personal. And when you got a new one, the first thing most people did was to customize the desktop background. BBS, AOL, and the web began to change all that, but we still thought of our computers as objects distinct from the Internet. You ran software (games, word processors, organizing tools, music players) inside your box without reference to the wider web.

Now, more and more of the computing power we use comes from a CPU across the Internet. We no longer own our digital homes. Instead, we live rent-free with our parents. There are some serious upsides to living with your parents, particularly in today's economy. You save money. You don't have to worry about figuring as many things out on your own. Someone else fixes all the messes. And it's harder to make a a mess when you're being constantly monitored.

But the freedom of usage that defined personal computing does not extend to the world of parental computing. This isn't a bug in the way that cloud services work. It is a feature. What we lose in freedom we gain in convenience. Maybe the tradeoff is worth it. Or maybe it's something that just happened to us, which we'll regret when we realize the privacy, security, and autonomy we've given up to sync our documents and correspondence across computers.


Image: flickr/cafenut
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This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/09/the-clouds-my-mom-cleaned-my-room-problem/245648/