Very like a whale: Charles Leadbeater on “Cloud Culture”

Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?
Polonius: By th’ Mass, and ’tis like a camel, indeed.
Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel.
Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.
Hamlet: Or like a whale.
Polonius: Very like a whale.

Hamlet, scene ii

Last Monday saw the launch by Counterpoint of Charles Leadbeater‘s pamphlet (manifesto? declaration?) on “Cloud Culture”. I was meaning to blog about the launch – there was an interesting panel discussion – but I’ve now read the pamphlet, too, and it seemed to make morre sense to blog about that first.

The pamphlet is very interesting; but it is frustrating, too. Leadbetter’s view of the cloud is pretty – well, nebulous. It is lost in a fog of multiple meanings, an incessant drizzle of data [Enough meteorological metaphors… Ed]. And I think that is really part of the problem: I think Leadbetter is in love with his metaphor, the all-encompassing cloud. This confuses rather than clarifies, since Leadbetter’s cloud is many different things: a camel, a weasel, a whale…

To most people, in the context of the internet, the cloud comprises

huge data centres housing vast storage systems and hundreds of thousands of servers, the powerful machines that dish up data over the internet. Web-based e-mail, social networking and online games are all examples of what are increasingly called cloud services, and are accessible through browsers, smart-phones or other “client” devices.

(the Economist, 15 October 2009).

Or, as Wikipedia puts it,

The term cloud is used as a metaphor for the Internet, based on the cloud drawing used to depict the Internet in computer network diagrams as an abstraction of the underlying infrastructure it represents. Typical cloud computing providers deliver common business applications online which are accessed from a web browser, while the software and data are stored on servers.

For most people, the cloud IS the internet: it is all those interactive services that we access through web browsers – Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, iTunes, Flickr, our blogs… – It is “web 2.0” (apologies – I hate that phrase, too). It is where we exist online.

It is these things for Leadbetter, too; but it is so much more.

It is

  • a dense cloud of information (p21)
  • clouds of cultural activity… a mushroom cloud of culture (p23)
  • a digital cloud hanging above us (p28)
  • a cloud of … free software programs (p29)
  • clouds of scientific data and global collaboration (p31)

I could go on (and on… and on!), but I’d just get myself more irritated.

In this mixing of metaphors – a heady cocktail – Leadbetter’s clouds obscure some important points. The new and evolving tools we can access through the internet do facilititate collaboration, allowing easy access to shared product; but this isn’t necessarily enabled by the cloud: closed servers somewhere might do the trick just as well. This is where the strenght, the value, comes from: not the cloud itslef.

Ownership of stored digital artefacts is another key issue. Who really owns my photographs which are stored on a server somewhere and can be accessed through flickr? Flickr’s terms and conditions are pretty clear about it – I do – and that is why I use that service; but other services are not so open: Facebook‘s T&C used to state that they had the right to use any content I placed on their servers, which is one reason why I have very limited content (and only a single photograph) on the site. (They may have changed their T&Cs; I haven’t checked. Very few people read T&Cs, and I now doubt a change in their policy would lead to a change in my behaviour.) Who owns a document I access and co-create on Google docs? Or some hypothetical service in the future.

Leadbetter is an advocate of open source collaboration – I saw him talk about open source issues before. He champions projects such as Wikipedia in which large communities of collaborators combine to create a public resource. (The book and blog Wikinomics explores this collaborative economy in fascinating depth.) He is in favour of sharing cultural artefacts and enabling others to create something new from them – the culture of the mashup. True to his word, Cloud Culture is published under a creative commons licence.

But mashups are nothing new. Many of Shakespeare's plays were based on – or stolen from – others' work. The four gospels of the New Testament were fanfic. As the recent exhibition in London “Turner and the Masters” demonstrated, artists have created new work from old and more, they have been taught to do so; human culture has survived by learning – copying – from others.

(By the way, when Leadbeater writes

a Korean boy playing Pachelbel’s Canon in D on the electric guitar in his bedroom has garnered more than 65 million hits on YouTube, providing the starting point for a global community of guitar-playing boys

[p 19], he is really, REALLY stretching the definition of “community” way, way past its breaking limit. That is not a community: it’s people doing the same thing. Or maybe copying each other. There are no shared beliefs, values or any of the other things which seem to embody “community”.)

The main message I take away from Cloud Culture is the need for vigilence. There may be money to be made through cloud computing; Google, Amazon, Apple and many more are probably hoping that there may be a lot of money to be made. The cloud capitalists, as Leadbeater dubs them, may not be the people to trust with our data – our creations and our identities.

Perhaps more importantly, the cloud capitalists and the culture they are creating comes from the western, rich world. Do we need to guarantee access to the poorer nations? What happens when the dominant culture on the internet is Asian – with different core beliefs and values? The Chinese government, with whom Google cooperated in censoring search results, could afford to buy or create its own providers of web services, which might have a very different view of data protection. Leadbeater assume that western cloud capitalists are the bad guys here – I think it could be much, much more complicated than that.

Leadbeater’s answer to these issues – these “storm clouds” on the horizon – is for multi-governmental public funding of social platforms to counter the corporate developments. The freemarketeer in me doesn’t agree with this; the public management of technology infrastructure doesn’t have a good record in the UK, and I cannot believe that it is any better in the USA, France, Germany – or China.

Leadbeater advocates mobile devices enabling access to the internet in poorer countries – leapfrogging the infrastructure that western nations have built up over many decades. But as Brian Condon pointed out to me after the launch, mobile devices puts a lot of power in the hands of the service provider – the phone company – as well as the user. These corporations can limit and manipulate access as much as other cloud capitalists, and cannot guarantee free access.

There are many issues Leadbeater is right to raise – the future of copyright; the danger of surrendering control of our cultural artefacts to cloud capitalists such as Google, whose Google Books threatens to become the monopoly provider of copyright books in electronic form; the dominance of western culture; and so on.

But his solutions don’t work for me; and in the economic straits we find ourselves in, I can’t see many governments willing to support the web in ways Leadbetter suggests. Except, perhaps, those with an eye on control of the internet…

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