Thursday, March 24, 2011

Moving one's life to the cloud

The big news in books and copyright this week is that the Google Books Settlement was rejected by Judge Denny Chin, who said it "would simply go too far," thirteen months after its submission to the court ... and after a lot of people just kind of forgot about it, or figured that since there hadn't been news in ages the case must have been settled.

I'm not going to explain this decision, and I'm not going to contextualize it, so ease away from that mouse button, okay? Everybody remotely interested in how this enormously consequent matter will affect the 'ownership' of culture is already writing and reading furiously about it (as I have in blogs gone by, including The Google Books Settlement in Six Easy Bullet Points of March 2010). I'll spare you my nickle's worth re: the latest developments. You can always ... Google it!

The return of the settlement story to the news leads me to think about my own evolving relationship with first digitizing, and now cloudsourcing so many artifacts of my own life-in-words ... much of it cloudsourced to Google, as it happens, including this very blog. The NY Times reported in their article announcing Judge Chin's ruling, "The decision throws into legal limbo one of the most ambitious undertakings in Google’s history, and it brings into sharp focus concerns about the company’s growing power over information." Reporter Miguel Helft is right. My concerns are, once again, in sharper focus.

Here's what I mean about cloudsourcing, or externalizing, my own life in words.

I've always been a big letter-writer. I hand-wrote letters as a kid. I typed loooooooong letters, first with a manual and then with an electric typewriter, when I was in college and for some years after. Then I typed looooooooooooooooooooooooonger letters on my first computer, printed them on my dot-matrix printer, and mailed them, you know, in envelopes, to intended recipients. With stamps. The kind you had to lick.

We're talking many, many thousands of words here.

And then came the intertubes.

Those first letters typed on an IBM AT were my first foray into digitizing the ephemera of my life as a writer. Later on there was e-mail. For years I was one of those people who printed and saved e-mail. Why? Because that's what I'd always done with letters: kept them and filed them.

Then I started printing and filing only the important ones. Then only the really important ones. Then just a few of the really important ones, when I remembered to do so. Then just a few of the really really important ones, the ones my imaginary biographers (ha!) really shouldn't be permitted to miss. And those only when I remembered and bothered.

Then, after migrating from one e-mail client with years and years of backlog correspondence in it to another, open-source client, I figured, okay, the data here is portable. I can take it with me. No need to keep anything but the electronic files. So that's (mostly) what I did.

At this point, my life as a correspondent was almost wholly digital. But that wasn't the end of it.

At a certain point I had my fill of using my work e-mail address for all my correspondence, personal and professional. I was ready to turn off the professional spigot evenings and weekends, yet still be in touch with my friends. So I started using a Google's Gmail for personal correspondence, and thus crossed a twenty-first century line. I now keep my correspondence in the cloud. That is to say, on Google hardware in Google data centers that Google owns and for which Google sets ownership, access, and persistence policy (I'm talking about that required checkbox next to the label that reads "click here if you agree to licensing restrictions read by no one you know and no one you will ever know").

For now, at least, I do still use a desktop client to read e-mail, and that means that copies of electronic messages are stored on my local hard disk, and are accessible even when the intertubes are not available to me, perish the thought.

But the trajectory is clear.

Not only have I given up on keeping copies in that more durable paper-and-ink format ... but I'm leaving my correspondence, my written history, my content, people, in the care of a vast and hugely powerful corporation.

I don't have my stuff anymore. A commercial behemoth has my stuff. What Google hasn't grabbed (e-mail and blog) belongs to Facebook and Twitter.

Bloomberg reported on Monday that "Evernote Corp., Dropbox Inc. and let users store their notes, documents, images and other content in the cloud. [...] 'Twitter and Facebook have done a great job of representing your social life, but the other half of your life, your personal life, is where we want to be the signature brand,' Phil Libin, chief executive officer of Mountain View, California-based Evernote, said in an interview. 'Facebook is for your friends -- Evernote is for you.'"

I found this a little disconcerting.

Lest anyone doubt that access to what we imagine we own in digital space is subject to the whim of very powerful agents ... consider the move Egypt's now-former government made to shut off the internet (cf., Block Like an Egyptian, 28 Jan 2011).

Need a more recent example than that? Consider China. In this week's article, China Tightens Censorship of Electronic Communications, reporters Sharon LaFraniere and David Barboza of the NY Times describe cell phone conversations being cut off as soon as the word "protest" is mentioned in a conversation -- in English or Chinese -- even when the offending conversation is a quote from Shakespeare's "Hamlet"! Yes, indeed, quoting Queen Gertrude -- "The lady doth protest too much, methinks" -- earns cell phone users an instant dropped call.

Better keep up those local backups after all.....

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Losing a digital life by syncing thru 'the cloud'
Pimped by our own devices: electronica, the cloud, and privacy piracy
Google yanks APIs, developers caught with pants around ankles
Breaking technology: Google's Blogger outage
Safeguarding cloud ephemera Part I: the big picture
Safeguarding cloud ephemera Part II: keeping your blog alive

Thanks to Engelbert Reineke, the Bundesarchiv, and Wikimedia Commons for the photo of 20th century computing. Nope, that's not me. I was older than that.


  1. You used the word "content" to refer to your own... content! Let me ring up Phillipa Burgess...

  2. @Steven: mean that using italics doesn't signal irony unambiguously? Dang...