In my previous post on “World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech” I considered what I thought were a couple of exaggerations or overstatements on the part of the author while agreeing with the primary premise that regulation of big tech was in order. My reasoning for agreeing regulation was necessary was about ownership of personal data and monopolistic practices.
When it comes to both of the those reasons, Foer missed what is perhaps the largest monopolistic threat offered by at least two of the three companies (Amazon and Google) he addresses most directly, and brings Microsoft into the mix. That is the phenomena of “cloud computing.”
This will take a bit of tech explaining so I will do my best. First thing to consider, the difference between a computer and a device. The second thing will be where a computer stores data and where a device stores data. Finally we will consider the the concept of cloud computing as compared to cloud storage.
A computer is an electronic machine composed of 4 basic things – a processor (the thing that does all the work), core memory (that is memory dedicated to stuff that the processor needs all the time), short term memory (think of this as the processor’s scratch pad space) and long term memory (this is where data lives even when the processor is not dealing with it – the data’s permanent home.) A device (typically a smartphone or tablet) is a computer with very limited long term memory that relies on its data living somewhere else – on the internet or “in the cloud” as they say.
When you create that gmail account or .me account when you start up your Android or Apple phone, you are establishing space on computers (in this case computers that work as “servers” which simply means computers that store stuff and can send it to other computers or devices via the internet) owned by Apple or in the case of Android, Google, where the data you put on that phone will live. So all your contacts, appointments and anything else you do on that device ends up on computers owned and controlled by those companies. When you are on a computer, as opposed to device, data only makes it way to such servers if you put it there through a browser or app that you tell to do so. These servers are “the cloud.” This is why, by the way, when you get a new phone it pretty quickly organizes itself like your old one – it just grabs everything off the cloud.
So, in the great transition created by the smartphone we have gone from home computers where data lived to computers owned and controlled by someone else being where your data lives. The space your data lives in is generally given to you free of charge which can raise all sorts of interesting questions about who owns the data and who can access the data. All of this is about cloud storage.
Things get even more complicated when you consider cloud computing. The processor in a home computer spends most of its time idle, not doing much actual computing. This is true for almost any computer, but when you do ask it to compute, you need a lot of computing power. The processor in a device is not nearly as powerful as the one in a computer because you do not ask a device to do much computing. So, the theory goes, why have a lot of idle computers around – why not have lots of less expensive devices around and when you need serious computing have the device hand the task off to a computer out there somewhere in the cloud, which will therefore be a lot busier and thus the cost of operating the computer will be much better amortized. Lots businesses with large computing requirements are buying into this model. They are thus only paying for the computer they use when they use it. But that means lots of their data and their computing happens on someone else’s computer, again raising questions about who owns the data and who can access it.
I have tried to find data on how much of the “the cloud” is controlled by Amazon, Google and Microsoft and cannot find any numbers. But this I do know – when you go out to lease cloud space you have lots of choices of leasing companies, but almost all of them that I have run into end up on servers owned by mostly Amazon, but the other two as well.
Do you see the problem here? It is much bigger than having your Facebook posts analyzed and your Google searches recorded. Pretty much everything vital to you, your contacts, your calendar, your driving records, all that stuff you use your phone for, ends up living on computers owned and controlled by big tech. That means they can access that data, just like your landlord can come into your apartment. Like your landlord they have a key. But most individuals are not paying rent for that space which makes controlling access even more difficult. Why do you think they are willing to give space to device owners for free? What’s in it for them? It cannot be just to promote sales of the devices – these server operations are massive and expensive things to create and maintain.
The so-called “cloud” is where the real threat of Big Tech resides and it is probably the best place to put in the first regulatory fingers.