We start the seminar at Ars Electronica on cloud computing in darkness, which David Sasaki reminds us, is the state of nature. We think of electric lights as pervasive, almost too cheap to meter. We don’t expect to pay to plug in our laptops. But it would be a mistake to assume that this infrastructure is universal – he shows us students in Monrovia, sitting outside the airport to study by electric lights.
When Thomas Edison began generating electricity, he used DC electricity to light up a small corner of lower Manhattan, powered by the Pearl Street station. Because DC didn’t carry very far without lossage, you needed lots of small power generating plants. Edison was unseated, ultimately, by Nikola Tesla, who worked with Westinghouse to consolidate the electric industry and make it possible to transfer high voltage electricity over long distances.
David shows Edison’s electrocution of Topsy the elephant, a scare tactic designed to scare the world away from high-voltage alternating current. Edison argued that the high voltages of AC would electrocute anyone unlucky enough to touch the wire. He was right, of course, but ultimately that was irrelavent. When it became possible to generate power from Niagra Falls, the game was won for AC – there was no other practical way to deliver the incredible amounts of power from a rural area to the cities where electricity was needed.
The history of computing has had at least as dramatic a set of changes as electricity, from the Control Data 3600, a half-million dollar monstrosity that featured a .483 MHZ CPU and 1.5MB memory. These machines were used by groups like the IRS. It took years for computers to become personal, with machines like the Apple.
David tells us that we’re now in an age of computing that looks like the Pearl Street power generation. Offices are filled with IT guys who look after small networks, installing software, issuing email passwords. David sees the move towards cloud computing as a move towards AC electricity, a centralization of resources into more efficient ways to deliver services. As a result, computers are getting dumber, not smarter – we’re increasingly using smartphones and netbooks, much less powerful than desktop computers, but enabled by the Internet to be profoundly powerful.
The cloud could be a dangerous abstraction, David warns us – it can blur the infrastructures that actually make these behaviors possible, like Google’s huge data centers, which include 40-50 thousand individual computers. David asserts that the internet now uses 5% of global energy (that figure is deeply disputed, and folks like Kevin Kelly have been looking for more accurate counts) and that data centers are being built by “cool rivers” to allos machines to be cooled (hmm… I haven’t seen a lot of river-cooled data centers, though I know many people are looking for data center space near cheap hydro-power.) He shows some maps that help us understand the infrastructure of the internet, the cables that carry the net, and the distribution of people who use the internet, showing us that in 2008, the number of Chinese internet users passed the number of American users.
He shows a video, “Social Media Revolution”, that offers a large number of social media statistics, including:
– 1 of 8 couples in America met by social media
– if facebook were a country, it would be 4th largest
– 80% of companies using Linked In as their primary tools to find employees
What might a world shaped by social media and cloud intelligence looks like? David asks us to look back, and features the work of Paul Otlet, who theorized a global question-answering service in 1934, where queries by telephone would be answered with texts and audio delivered by a screen. “Cinema, photographs, radio, television will become the new book”, delivered by “the radiated library”. Looking forward, he offers glimpses of the cloud future:
– the reCAPTCHA, which harnesses anti-spam technologies to digitize books
– the use of Mechanical Turk by a frustrated shopper to find online items that he’s shopping for offline, with the cooperation of Amason
– a cloud service that permits listeners to get the identification of a song playing on the radio, via mobile phone… and which helps map what music people are listening to
– The Michael Jackson tribute, the eternal moonwalk
What’s to come in the age of the cloud? That’s the job we’re facing today, with speakers (myself included) exploring this new territory.