We used to surround ourselves with stuff: books, newspapers, journals, music CDs, and video tapes. They filled our shelves, our filing cabinets, and our libraries.
Increasingly, these media are not held by us — not even stored on our computers — but somewhere else; on servers in places so remote, they might as well be in the clouds.
On this week’s edition of On the Media, Nicholas Carr, author of the new book, The Big Switch: Rewiring the World From Edison To Google, explains how our transition from desktop to cloud computing is like our switch from household energy production to connecting to the nation’s electrical grid.
The big switch to cloud computing comes with real benefits (like free applications and services) but also requires us to relinquish control of content.
This blog post was composed using free web software. It’s stored on a server somewhere — on the West coast, I think. The images that I include in each post are not mine, and I’m not even sure if I relinquish my copyright when clicking on the Publish button (I should have read the fine print). I’m left with no copy for my own laptop, but with the faith that I’ll have access to what I’ve written in the future.
Computing in the clouds allows me to link my blog post to other to other websites, which leads to a new problem : keeping the attention of the reader. Carr, who wrote “Is Google Making Us Stupid” last year in The Atlantic Monthly, argues that the web is creating a new kind of reading, and a dearth of focus. He explains:
a price we might have to pay for this enormous convenience and to have all this information at our fingertips is the loss of our ability to concentrate or be contemplative, those things that require really sustained concentration. There’s no reward for that kind of behavior on the Internet.
In other words, to quote Marshall McLuhan‘s famous aphorism, “the medium is the message.” The web both enables and constrains the way we communicate. It gives us the tools to be be expressive, while at the same time limiting what can be expressed.
Carr leaves us with a profound thought at the end of the interview:
my guess is we’re going to see a fairly profound shift in how we define intellect and how we define culture as we move to getting everything, more or less, through this one medium of the Internet