Continued from, Technology as Infrastructure, Act Two.

Act Three

All my discussions of "technology as infrastructure" thus far have been fairly high level. Discussions of particular business strategies of major players (eg. google and amazon), discussions approaches to "the cloud," and so forth. As is my way, however, I've noticed that the obvious missing piece of this puzzle is how users--like you and me--are going to use the cloud. How thinking about technology as infrastructure changes the way we interact with our technology, and other related issues.

One of my introductory interludes was a new use-case that I've developed for myself: I run my chat clients on a server, and then using GNU screen which is an incredibly powerful, clever, and impossible to describe application. I've written about it before, but lets just describe it's functionality as such:

Screen allows users to begin a persistent (terminal/shell/console) session on one computer, and then "detatch" and continue that session on another machine where the session runs--virtually--indistinguishable from "native sessions."

So my chat programs are running on a server "inside of" a screen session and when I want to talk to someone, I trigger something on my local machine that connects to that screen session, and a second later, the program is up and running just as I left it.

Screen can of course, be used locally (and I do use it in this mode every waking moment of my day) but there's something fundamentally different about how this specific use case affects the way I think about my connection.

This is just one, and one very geeky, example of what infrastructural computing--the cloud--is all about. We (I) can talk till we're (I'm) blue in the face, but I think the interesting questions arise not from thinking about how the infrastructure and the software will develop, but rather from thinking about what this means to people on the ground.

At a(n apparently) crucial moment in the development of "the cloud" my personal technological consumption went from "quirky but popular and mainstream" to fiercely independent, hackerish, and free-software-based. As a result, my examples in this area may not be concretely helpful in figuring out the path of things to come.

I guess the best I can do, at the moment is to pose a series of questions, and we'll discuss the answers, if they seem apparent in comments:

  • Does "the cloud" provide more--on any meaningful way--than a backup service? It seems like the key functionality that cloud services provide is hosting for things like email and documents, that is more reliable than saving and managing backups for the ordinary consumer>
  • Is there functionality in standards and conventions that are underutilized in desktop computing that infrastructural approaches could take advantage without building proprietary layers on-top of java-script and HTTP?
  • Is it more effective to teach casual user advanced computing techniques (ie. using SSH) or to develop solutions that make advanced infrastructural computing easier for casual users (ie. front ends for git, more effective remote-desktop services).
  • Is it more effective for connections to "the cloud" to be baked into current applications (more or less the current approach) or to bake connections to the cloud into the operating system (eg. mounting infrastructural resources as file systems)
  • Is the browser indeed the prevailing modality, or simply the most convenient tool for network interaction.
  • Do we have enough conceptual experience with using technology to collaborate (eg. wikis, source control systems like git, email) to be able to leverage the potential of the cloud, in ways that reduce total workloads rather than increase said workloads?
  • Does infrastructural computing grow out of the problem of limited computing power (we might call this "vertical complexity") or a management problem of computing resources in multiple contexts (eg. work, home, laptop, desktop, cellphone; we might call this "horizontal complexity") And does this affect the kind of solutions that we are able to think about and use?

Perhaps the last question isn't quite user-centric, but I think it leads to a lot of interesting solutions about possible technologies. In a lot of ways the most useful "cloud" tool that I use, is Google's Blackberry sync tool which keeps my calendar and address book synced (perfectly! so much that I don't even notice) between my computer, the phone, and the web. Git, for me solves the horizontal problem. I'm not sure that there are many "vertical problems," other than search and data filtering, but it's going to be interesting to think about.

In any case, I look forward to discussing the answers and implications of these issues with you all, so if you're feeling shy, don't, and leave a comment.