As Paper Went Virtual, so Virtual Goes Virtual. The Cloud is Here.

(Oh, man what a great break. Lot’s of work done. Refueled my blogging jets, a little, and now I should be good to go from here straight through the C’s Conference.)

So I was listening to the latest episode of BuzzOutLoud (one of CNET’s family of tech podcasts) about the future of laptops. Not something I had thought much about, and not something I initially understood as a pressing topic. Maybe it is. The trio of commentators mentioned the impact of netbooks on the hardware industry over the past year. The coming of the ebook (apologies to Martin and Febvre). The intense interest in the iPad’s arrival. The advent of “touch” computing. And the still-useful-ness of desktop towers. And then they mentioned “cloud computing.” And I had two thoughts…

The first was, “Wow. Hardware technologies are REALLY changing a lot faster than I realized.” Mostly, I’m thinking form-factors, but the arrival of the i3, i5, and i7 chips has really initiated a “leap” in processing power akin to the introduction of dual-core and quad-core processors. Man, this is exciting. My interest, of course, focuses primarily on what these changes mean for the future of the book. (read: dissertation) More on that in another, later post.

The other thought that I had was that the term “cloud computing” is getting more traction all the time. So what does it mean? It’s a term that means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Which also, inevitably means that it’s starting to get picked up by tech-marketers, too. You may have seen the IBM ads about a “smarter planet,” or “I do my work in the cloud,” or “building a smarter cloud.” Even some major magazines are starting to sense that the word has some play.

For the sake of this post, at least, I’m going to use it to refer to a recent phenomenon of people performing work within web applications (read: within their browser) that they would have recently performed with desktop software. For example, instead of composing a paper in MS Word and saving it to your desktop, you know might create that same file in GoogleDocs and save it to your account (associated with your gmail account). No file or software ever on your desk. You can share/collaborate/distribute access to that file in ways that weren’t possible with just Word on the desktop. This sort of transition is happening all over the place. You can store and edit pictures entirely on Flickr now. You can blog entirely in the cloud. There are plenty of video capture/edit services entirely online now, too. For lots of people, this is “the cloud.” (It means other things for other people, too.)

What I find interesting about this, though, is that I think it has the potential to change the ways people think about writing, texts, and books. Or at least to intensify some habits people are already getting into. Digital technologies have fundamentally changed the way we think about texts. The effects on writing practices, distribution, consumption, and participation are all pretty obviously changing.

What I’m talking about is our ontological relationship to texts. The move from static to dynamic. The move from actual to virtual. 20,000 pages of text used to mean a full bookshelf. Two years ago, it might have meant a small USB drive. We can’t possibly understand the modes of a textual “existence” in the ways we used to. It just doesn’t make any sense. First, and maybe most important, is the fact that now, the FACT of a book as paper-ink-binding is now remarkable (as in “worthy of remark”). In fact, almost any mode within which a book is instantiated is worthy of note. It becomes part of the text’s rhetoric. This is the first note I wanted to make. Digital texts tend to bring the “mode of delivery” back into any analysis of a text. There IS no longer any default.

The second ontological consequence of digital textuality has to do with the material existence of a text. To transition from the physical space occupied by a shelf of books to the tiny usb drive is a radical experience. Most people, I think, tend to experience it as a transition from actual to virtual. And while this model has some merit, it’s much more apt to stick with the idea of a shift in size and material. The books got smaller. Not just by shrinking but through reorganization, too. But they still exist in the material world. (Matthew Kirschenbaum probably makes the  best case for this.) We still need to “store” them someplace. We still “send” them from place to place. We cannot make them appear from the ether. Screens. Hard Disks. Processors. Random Access Memory. The are “inside” our computers and portable drives.

But this cloud thing is different, right? Now it really is like our files exist out there in the ether. We conjure them and they appear. We can work on them anywhere there’s a connection. Right? Sorta.

But I want to spend some time thinking about the potential consequences of this shift. The way we value these texts. And by extension, the way we value the work that goes into producing them. And the different notions we’re going to have to develop regarding preservation and access. These issues are already important to discussions of intellectual property, plagiarism, tenure and promotion publication credits, making certain types of editorial work visible, etc. And maybe, most important to some of you readers out there, that digital writing, as virtual as it may seem, requires the same clock-ticking type of hours that print scholarship does. These hours have to come out of the same work week everybody starts with. That hard drives need to be replaced regularly. That quoting another digital text (capturing, editing, exporting, citing, linking-to) is a heck of a lot more work than “quoting” one print text within another.

And the cloud is taking these complicated transitions, and making them even more extreme in some cases, and totally irrelevant in others.

The cloud is here. We work in it, to some degree every day. There may come a day, maybe even soon, where all we will need is a machine to get online. To get into the cloud. And we’ll have to start to rethink this stuff again.

(image appears courtesy of Ryan Trauman; same creative commons license as the rest of the blog)

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