Every silver lining has a cloud.

cloud

James Carroll, one of my favorite writers and columnists, took on cloud computing today in his Boston Globe op-ed piece. He was examining the possibility that computing would disappear from the machines in our hands to a mysterious machine up in the clouds. Cloud is the metaphor used to describe the world of large servers located all over the Internet. These servers contain all the data you access when you go to a web page, search for anything, connect to people via Facebook, send an email, or process documents using Google docs, and more. A few days ago I wrote that the combined processing capacity of all of these plus all the real machines on desks is just about equal to that of a single brain. That’s an interesting statistic. Carroll mentions the idea of a collective consciousness: a sort of single brain or mysterious cognitive entity reflecting the thoughts of everyone on Earth.

This idea is found in the work of such diverse thinkers as philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, whose notion of spirit (Geist) refers to a sort of general consciousness--a single mind encompassing all humans; the sociologist Emile Durkheim with his idea of “collective consciousness” or shared beliefs; Teilhard de Chardin who coined the phrase, “noosphere,” meaning a single related mind and Ken Wilber who has expanded upon de Chardin’s notion; C. J.Jung who believed that there is a single “collective unconsciousness” shared by all people; H. G. Wells with the idea of a “world brain”; and whoever thought up the movie, The Matrix, where all reality is created by a single conscious machine, and perhaps more. Each of these is distinct, but all suggest some form of global linking or a seamless global entity containing all or part of our cognitive functions.

Carroll is concerned that Cloud technology with its universalizing potential may come to dominate us. The connection between us and the machine becomes more opaque than it already is as the information and way it is handled vanish from the computing device in front of us. If we ever had an inkling of what going on inside the machine, it would be lost from view. I can remember my first Macintosh computer. I understood how it worked and could handle glitches and unforeseen evens. Today my Mac is so complicated and the innards hidden away so that I cannot do much more than stare at it when it goes bad.

As individual tech users surrender both control and understanding, even of their most intimate communications, to that new reality, does there come a point when its abstract supremacy takes on character and agency — something like personhood?

The loss of control is clear and palpable to me. In this sense the Cloud is no different from any form of modern technology which comes with the same potential. I am less concerned that some Frankenstein monster will miraculously appear than I am of losing more of our humanness than we have already given up.

Computer scientists have, in effect, made such preoccupation real in pursuit of artificial intelligence. Others observe that an over-arching, human-created but independent power dominating affairs is implied in the way traders speak of the market, operating with totalitarian rules that no one understands. Has the Internet ushered in such a slyly domineering force? Language fails, so old categories of metaphysics and mysticism are appealed to, even as mundane metaphors are coined, all in the effort to articulate this altered state of the human condition

The answer to Carroll’s question above is yes! When technology intervenes in human affairs something is always lost in translation. Putting on spectacles changes the way world is for myopic people. In this case the effect is usually thought to be positive. When young people lose the meaning of friendship by unthinking and unreflective use of Facebook, the impact is opposite; something important is lost. Human (and much animal) life is fundamentally social. Everyday life depends absolutely on coordinating action at work, home, on the athletic fields, and in every relationship. Language is the means of coordination. Without language we could not have gotten to where we are after a long period of evolution, but language is not enough. Communications must be understood to produce the desired results.

This is where technology comes in. It is difficult to be understood when standing a few feet from someone to whom you are speaking. We make a mistake in thinking that the words we use plus perhaps the tone of voice are all it takes to be understood. When action fails to produce the desired results, we often hear someone say, “You are not listening to me.” It would be more correct to say, “You don’t understand me.”? Listening is always an interpretive activity. Music to my grandchildren is completely different from how I hear it. Where I hear noise; they hear a coherent sound. A message takes on meaning through the already present filters in the listener that convert meaningless sounds to something that is familiar. The immediate context also affects the meaning. Now separate the actors by some form of communication device--cell phone, Skype, or Facebook--and the context disappears. Critical nonverbal signals are missing or distorted. We lose the ability for meaningful interaction and can increasingly do only what the technology allows us to do. I believe that is what Carroll was saying. Without meaning in what we do, we become more like machines than human beings.

H. G. Wells foresaw the development of the Cloud. He wrote about a “World brain,” that would contain all the information the world possesses. He was struck by the emerging forms of information storage that make encyclopedias obsolete. Like the much earlier Enlightenment thinkers, he believed that by making knowledge (expressed in the printed word) universally available, the human species could use their rational powers to overcome dominating forces. The Cloud has potential to become the storehouse of all information, but lacks the structure to guide its use to the ends Wells envisioned. It is only information without the context to convert it to understanding.

Carroll saw a different positive side.

But the Cloud carries a positive connotation, too — an invitation to value the mystery, paradox, and ambiguity that remain forever foreign to machines. An anonymous genius of the 14th century wrote “The Cloud of Unknowing,’’ in which the obscuring and elusive mist offered an image of breakthrough understanding that awareness of life’s ultimate unknowability, far from being mere ignorance, is the permanent precondition of the knowledge that makes us human

I disagree, although his point is appealing. Access to the spiritual is a part of flourishing and that is very important to me. I do not think that the Cloud, either as a real system of boxes and wires or as a metaphor, will awaken the care for the spiritual that is an essential part of what makes us human. It will perhaps add to list of mysteries encountered during one’s life, but this is the wrong kind of mystery. Mystery is not “foreign to machines”; it is produced by them and in so doing pushes away the spiritual mysteries Carroll and the unknown mystic who wrote the "Cloud of Unknowing" refer to. One of the main themes in this book is to seek the ineffable God through contemplation, love, and some form of unthinking, placing all one’s thoughts beneath a “cloud of forgetting.” Try as hard as I can, I cannot see any connection to cloud computing. I would agree that much of the work done in the Cloud is mindless and unthinking, but not in the way the mystic meant.

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2 Comments

David M Carter said:

John,

Your piece today reminds of these haunting lyrics from Pink Floyd:

"Take It Back"

Her love rains down on me easy as the breeze
I listen to her breathing it sounds like the waves on the sea
I was thinking all about her, burning with rage and desire
We were spinning into darkness; the earth was on fire

She could take it back, she might take it back someday

So I spy on her, I lie to her, I make promises I cannot keep
Then I hear her laughter rising, rising from the deep
And I make her prove her love for me, I take all that I can take
And I push her to the limit to see if she will break

She might take it back, she could take it back some day

Now I have seen the warnings, screaming from all sides
It's easy to ignore them and G-d knows I've tried
All this temptation, it turned my faith to lies
Until I couldn't see the danger or hear the rising tide

She can take it back, she will take it back some day

John Ehrenfeld Author Profile Page said:

Thanks for this.