Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Data in the Cloud: Tut Tut, It Looks Like Rain

This post is going to be long and drawn out, so I'm not going to beat around the bush like I often do at the start of these things.

This post is about the cloud, how Jesus Diaz is an idiot, and how Aquaman could destroy the Internet.

OK, maybe I should beat around the bush a little first.

"The cloud" is a term for the Internet, or more specifically, for using the Internet as a means of storage. Storing something "in the cloud" is basically saving a file of some kind on the Internet. Now that we all know what I'm talking about, here's the part that pissed me off enough to write this.

I recently came across this article written by Dave Winer but re-posted on Gizmodo by Jesus Diaz. This article pisses me off.

Well, OK, not the original article written by Dave Winer. I have problems with that article, but I'll get into that later and I generally see his point and more or less agree. I'm really just pissed off at Jesus.

Man, I wish his parents named him something different. Out of context, a lot of this article is going to sound pretty awful.

I've been following Gizmodo for years and Jesus has always been my least favorite writer on the site. He often gives his articles hit-baiting titles that can sometimes be misleading. I like that he's a huge proponent for NASA, but he never leaves his subjectivity at the door. I mean, even in this article where he's just posting what someone else said, he can't help but put in his own two cents at the very beginning.

Jesus is a very opinionated man, is what I'm saying. And a lot of the time, Jesus comes off as a reactionary nutcase wearing a tin-foil hat.

What I'm getting at is that I find it very depressing that Gizmodo, a news site dedicated to TECHNOLOGY, has no problems putting up an article saying:

"And yet, we're all flying to the cloud because it's so convenient. This has to change, because things can get a lot worse..."

OK, seriously, Jesus? Are you fucking kidding me?

Dave Winer's Article

In case you don't feel like reading the original article from Dave Winer, it more or less talks about his personal experience where he had to shut down a server running people's blogs and the users treated him like a murderer. It examines the sense of entitlement we have regarding the data we put up on the cloud. It's our data and we trust the companies with it, so we expect that data to be safe. His thesis appears to be that the data is NOT safe and we should always think about a scenario where all the servers we rely on were to go down.

I'm not sure I agree with his random tangent about how the Internet is "socialist", but I don't think it's particularly relevant.

But for the most part, I agree. We should always remember that cloud services are just as volatile as any other data storage. While a scenario where Google or Dropbox or whatever goes down completely forever is improbable, that doesn't mean we shouldn't consider it as a possibility. Depending solely on the cloud is not a good idea and when things go wrong with our cloud services, we shouldn't act surprised or violated or betrayed. Tech companies are not gods.

This is something we should all be reminded of, and so I really don't have a problem with Winer's article.

Jesus Diaz's Re-post

Jesus re-posted the article on Gizmodo with the following editor's note:

Steve Wozniak recently lost his calendar. Mat Honan saw his iCloud security breached and his entire digital life was obliterated. In the cloud, when something goes wrong, you are screwed. There are no rules to stop it, no protections in place. There's no responsibility. Companies like Apple or Google or Microsoft or Dropbox change features at whim, disable services without really caring about the user. Your photostream, your calendars, your reminders, your documents, your home movies—they are at their mercy or at the mercy of market forces.
And yet, we're all flying to the cloud because it's so convenient. This has to change, because things can get a lot worse, as legendary developer Dave Winer tells from his own experience in this article.—JD
He also posted a comment on his own post (did I mention he was opinionated?) asking the following:

"What would you do if you lost your data and the company would just shrug and say: 'it's not my responsibility' like it happened with Honan or Woz?"

This is where I get pissed off and decide to write a blog post.

Basically, Jesus is drawing the conclusion from Dave's article that the cloud is essentially the devil and trusting it will result in the irreversible destruction of your digital life.

Now, I'm not really SURPRISED Jesus is drawing this conclusion. He's basically a conspiracy theorist. He believes in UFOs and that Google will become Skynet. He got banned by his own site because he called someone a "corporate cocksucker" in a comment thread about how Google is evil. Of COURSE he believes that cloud services are dangerous. They're run by corporations! When the aliens attack and knock out our power grid, we'll lose EVERYTHING and have to submit to our new benevolent overlords (as well we should).

Obviously, while I'm not surprised at Jesus' reaction, I still find it to be absolutely moronic, particularly for a technology news site.

But let me start by talking about the two examples he cites.

The first is in relation to Steve Wozniak, which is detailed in another Gizmodo article that's titled Why the Cloud Sucks. The gist of it is that because of some glitch regarding Mountain Lion and BusyCal, his Google Calendar got deleted. Therefore, "the cloud sucks." Sorry, Steve, but you jumped to the wrong conclusion. The proper conclusion is "BusyCal sucks" or "Mountain Lion sucks." By the way, did you ever reach out to Google tech support and ask if they could recover your data? I mean, I'm not sure if they would or not, but if they could, I'm sure they'd do it for Steve Fucking Wozniak. In any case, perhaps you should have adjusted the settings on BusyCal or iCal to retain the local data more thoroughly. It sounds like BusyCal had a backup, maybe you should have set it to keep the backups more up-to-date.

The second is in relation to Mat Honan, another writer for Gizmodo. Frankly, I find this one hilarious. Mat Honan is often writing about how Google is evil and how their lack of security is a huge problem and then his entire digital life is destroyed because of a security flaw in Apple's cloud service. This is like someone who worries constantly about getting shot by a gun getting killed by a sword.

Seriously though, both cases are definitely cautionary tales. You can't depend on data stored in the cloud. This is true and valuable advice.

The problem is that rather than present this in a reasonable manner, Jesus has decided to write about how depending on the cloud could lead to a potentially apocalyptic scenario.

If it were me, I probably would have written an article about which cloud services you can use that allow you to keep local backups so you can enjoy the convenience of the cloud without depending on it. But nope. Jesus has decided that the cloud is evil and has to change before THINGS GET WORSE.

The Aquaman Apocalypse

OK, I'll bite. Let's say things get worse. Let's consider a scenario where all the cloud data we rely on is suddenly eradicated. But because I don't want this to be taken seriously, I'm going to pretend this hypothetical scenario exists in the DC Universe.

Let's say Aquaman decided to go rogue. Let's say he got really pissed off at the BP oil spill and decided to lead Atlantis and all the creatures of the sea to all-out war with the rest of the planet. Don't laugh, he could really fuck us up. Not only would we no longer be able to go anywhere near the oceans (our coastal cities would be fucked... NYC, New Orleans, pretty much all of California), but a great deal of our infrastructure and energy goes through the ocean, specifically the pipes that allow the Internet to exist worldwide. So to make a long story short, Aquaman severs the World Wide Web, all our coastal DNS servers go down, and an energy crisis forces us to ration our electricity. The Internet is now largely dead. While some could still use their energy rations to access their own computers, all of their data on the cloud is either destroyed or inaccessible.

So the Atlanteans are threatening to destroy the world and to make matters worse, I CAN'T BLOG ABOUT IT.

What should I have done? Well, for starters, I should have been using Dropbox. If I had been using Dropbox, everything I uploaded would be synced with all of the computers that I've configured to use the Dropbox client. In other words, I'd be set. There are similar ways to store most data that exists in the cloud locally in an essentially hands-free manner. Google does this, Microsoft does this, Apple does this.

The moral of the story is that if you want to access your powerpoints in the Aquaman Apocalypse, don't store everything exclusively on the cloud.

The cloud is a great service for backing up data or synchronizing data between multiple machines. But keeping your data exclusively on the cloud is not unlike living on the subway. Sure it's convenient, but you risk getting stabbed in your sleep. But just because you shouldn't live on the subway doesn't mean you shouldn't USE the subway.

The cloud is an excellent tool. While it's not without its own pitfalls and risks, it's generally far more reliable than working solely locally. A lot of my friends are writers and probably every single one of them had a situation where they were writing something and then their computer crashed or lost power and they lost everything they were working on. If they had been working in the cloud, they wouldn't have lost everything. If they had been using the right tools, then even losing connection to the Internet wouldn't have stopped their flow (though obviously any changes wouldn't be uploaded to the cloud until the connection is restored). Using the cloud is just plain smart.

I do think that eventually basically everything we use will be available through the cloud. It just makes sense. That doesn't mean that we won't store anything locally, it just means that we won't NEED to. That's the great thing about the cloud. I don't NEED to sync my phone with my laptop in order to play the album I just purchased. I don't NEED to copy files to a USB flash drive in order to edit them wherever. It's simply a better paradigm. We just have to remember that data is data and it doesn't matter where it is. Always have a backup plan.

Who Owns the Data?

But all this talk brings up a rather interesting question. Say Google did destroy my entire account. Should they be held accountable? Is the data worth anything? Do my files exist?

Digital property is still very much a gray area and is subject to a lot of interesting practical and philosophical questions.

Ultimately, I don't know the answers to these questions. I do know that Google should keep my data secure to the best of their ability, and generally they do this very well. If they stop, then I'll take my business elsewhere. This is the nature of business. Does Google own my data? I think they own that copy of my data, but they don't own the rights to distribute it. It's all very confusing, but what it boils down to is, I'm trusting Google to keep a watchful eye on my data and keep it safe.

But that is not the same thing as depending on them.

Jesus seems to suggest that we shouldn't trust Google or Apple or Dropbox BECAUSE we shouldn't depend on them. I personally think dependence is generally a bad thing. While we often have little choice but to depend on certain things, it would generally be better if we didn't have to. This applies to just about anything. People, products, resources, anything. But trust is not about dependence. Trust is about taking a risk and acknowledging that trust can be broken, but hoping that it won't be.

I trust the cloud.


  1. The security and permanence of the cloud is an especially intriguing in light of Amazon's new Glacier service, which offers large scale, long term (as in hundreds of years) data archiving. It's designed to be accessible from any computer, but because of media preservation considerations, there can be up to a 3-5 hour delay in retrieval. It seems like a solid system, and it can certainly hold the data for longer than any single normal physical system can last, but then you get into asking questions like "will Amazon still be around in 100 years?" If they're on the rocks and shutting down the servers, what happens if you don't have enough storage space for terabytes of archived records?

    Article about the Glacier service:

  2. Funny thing about our data and the sites that store them: there is a huge debate right now about whether that data should be considered copywrite material and to whom. It's also brought to question copywrite in general and what we should be copywriting (the whole companies sueing over ideas for smartphones deal sparked this too). I actualy read a paper in one of my classes that was titled: Who Owns The Data? (well something very similar anyway)

    You know that saying, one man's trash is another man's treasure? Yeah...this debate is going to go on FOREVER.

    But the overall moral is clear: Don't just save everything on the Cloud. It's not the end of the world if you do but people just need to be intellegent and think to themsleves how important certain data is and have a hard copy back up of shit that's really dear to them. I mean, I don't explicitely trust the Cloud, but I don't go preaching that everyone should be wary either. Just, you know, smart.

    And then there are people who almost lose half their novel because their laptop died and they didn't have any of it on the cloud >.> Totaly not talking about me here '^^