An example of various cloud colors
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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

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Phil Davis

Phil Davis

Phil Davis is a publishing consultant specializing in the statistical analysis of citation, readership, publication and survey data. He has a Ph.D. in science communication from Cornell University (2010), extensive experience as a science librarian (1995-2006) and was trained as a life scientist.


4 Thoughts on "From Stuff to Clouds"

Phil – The switch to the cloud seems inevitable for many ‘messages’ but I wonder whether some will always have sufficient stand-alone and other qualities to remain on the ground so to speak.

A (poor) example is the rise in sales of new vinyl records, which now often come with a free MP3 download. Is this just cashing in nostalgic audiophiles or does it represent a model for many such niches, where the appeal is to an inherent desire for ownership/possession?

Translating this to publishing, one approach might therefore be to generate high-quality, must-own messages and surround them with free clouds above – this is similar to the “Nature could make all it’s research papers open access and people would still buy it for the front matter” argument.

Thanks for the comment, Richard, although I think we may be confusing ownership with location (although the two are so closely linked in our psyche).

Some journals already have mixed business models where original articles are free, but one must subscribe to access editorials, news, perspectives, etc.
All of the published content is located “in the clouds,” so ownership does not translate to physical possession.

Cloud content will have a growing (and negative) impact on libraries. Faculty who walk in the doors and see empty shelves where paper issues used to stand may wondering what the library actually provides, if only comfortable study space and coffee bars.

Fortunately for now, older faculty can still translate the physicality of a collection to online space because they’ve had experience with the former. As a library administrator, I’d be fearful of a new generation of faculty wondering why so much money is spent on subscriptions, when all of the content appears to be free out there…in the clouds.

Phil–your reply highlights an aspect of this that is quite relevant to scholarly publishers. You can’t equate “subscribing” with “owning” anymore either. Subscribing is inherently cloudy. Journals have always been comfortable with the subscription model, though until not long ago the provision of a physical object, which the subscriber then really “owned,” was part of the deal. But because the publishers and the subscribers took the subscription model for granted, it was possible to stop sending that physical object without too many people (except librarians) panicking too much. Now we’re about to see BOOKS moving to a subscription model more and more. That’ll make the clouds roll in!

There are a wide range of benefits and challenges as we move into a networked environment. Notions of ownership will need to shift (possibly for the bad, or the good), but there are a variety of other critical issues. Physical limitations on content will also disappear, where will one “book” end and another begin? Content will likely be merge-able with other, related content (historic, bibliographic, temporal, etc) and people will come to expect it. Present ideas of DRM, which is wrapped around the file, will become antiquated as authentication will take place at a network level. Because of this, usage data will be increasingly granular and traceable. Privacy concerns anyone? Finally, a generation is growing up expecting interactivity with content in a way previously unimaginable. How they want to interact with books, journals in the ‘cloud’ will likely be different than prior generations.

Several industry groups are partnering to organize a senior-level meeting to discuss the potential impacts, risks and rewards of these changes. More information will be released soon.

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