I read this post by Bruce Sterling about "Cloud Culture", and haven't quite been able to formulate an appropriate response. It's true that I often find myself ranting about this or that thing Bruce Sterling has written, so I'm perhaps not the most impartial

To summarize, his notion is that "the cloud," as evidenced by a wealth of usable digital information and content, combined with an uptick in digital participation will lead to some sort of minimalistic cultural singularity that he's calling "Cloud Culture."


So lets attack this full on. The "Cloud" is marketing dribble. There's nothing there, it's just a different way of organizing the servers that provide content and services on the Internet. In a lot of way the Amazon and Rackspace "Clouds" have brute forced the server and hosting business with utterly conventional hardware, off the shelf open source software, and a bunch of [insert-favorite-scripting-language-here] scripts. Oh, and a lot of capital.

That's the back-end, and moving upwards in the stack, we'll find that the tools (e.g. Apache, Relational Databases, Perl) that we're using now are for the most part the same this time around as they were ten or fifteen years ago. Sure we have new practices, and there are new frameworks, new versions of some software, but the changes are mostly evolutionary. Until you get to what the users see, and now we have applications that live in web browsers, and a more robust set of interconnected network services.

Otherwise, the cloud is just the Internet bundled up in a differed way. And it's true that the bundling matters, but at the end of the day just because the "cloud" presents a better way to do the work of the Internet (in some situations,) it doesn't mean that any of the fundamental principals have changed.

Another phenomena that hasn't changed with the cloud: we've not quite gotten the economic system for the Internet figured out in a way that's reliable and sustainable. New things on the Internet are supported by capital from "old-world" industries by way of venture capital and spin off subsidiaries. The leading business models are advertising (very print media) and premium subscription services (which are often contrived). So eventually it all collapses, and any gains in cultural participation run up against the hard costs of keeping power flowing to the servers in some way.

A few thoughts:

  • We could just as easily call this whole "cloud" thing "the matrix," or "cyberspace," in Gibson's original formulation. Cloud is a horrible metaphor for most things, but particularly this.
  • The apparent cohesiveness of the Internet in 2010 is almost entirely due to the success of Google. As much as we might try and avoid Google, I firmly believe if Google were to go away without warning, while the Internet would still work most of the economy around it would crash and burn: people wouldn't discover new things, the on-line advertising industry would largely collapse, a lot of the software that a lot of people inside and outside of google use would be without maintainers.
  • I'm not sure cultural participation is problem space that can be brute forced, and certainly the development of additional applications in the cloud is unlikely to increase participation in a direct manner. I'm not being an elitist and saying "cultural participation by the unschooled and unwashed masses isn't worthwhile," but rather cultural participation is about developing direct relationships and making/building things, and that requires forming relationships that don't scale well.