Change, the cloud, and virtual brain damage.

… or perhaps the evolving relationships between centralization, efficiency, and security.

Things are really starting to change.


I say this not just because I’m on my way to becoming an old person (I went past 40 trips around the sun last year), but because I’ve noticed a few significant shifts in the past year or so–or rather I’ve reflected on the massive shifts that have been happening–and at the limits that are starting to appear in physical reality in some areas–and not in others.

So let me give a few data points to provide context.

1. In Fall 2008, I started teaching freshmen engineers how to write.  In this, I made them write research papers on some sort of important engineering topic.  Back at that date, the idea of wind turbines seemed rather new to the students–and there seemed still to be a lot of debate over whether they were feasible.  Solar power, at the time, seemed even more pie in the sky.

Originally from zzzoffshore-wind-power-7259

Originally from zzzoffshore-wind-power-7259

However, over the past 5 years, this has changed.  Wind Turbines went from being seen as weird hippy eyesores on the environment to being almost reliable and a clear choice as at least part of our energy production system.  One can note that since 2008, total installed windpower has doubled, and in places like Spain, it is now the 4th largest source of electricity, just a bit behind coal.

Watching my students choice of research topics, it’s also clear that solar power–while not yet quite as developed–has also grown by leaps and bounds.  Instead of it just being seen as something that needs 20 years more development, you have a huge variety of solar topics and solar cell developments (nanostructures for silicon cells, dye-based solar cells, thin film organic solar cells) and you have clear economic analysis that shows solar power parity with standard coal power within the next decade or so.

This is big fucking change.  Pay attention people.

2. Information/communication-wise, the change has been even faster.  Thinking back, when I started college in 1990, email was new and not everyone at college had an account.

While I was an undergrad, the first web browser came into existence–Mosaic–developed at NCSA, which was a building only about 5 blocks from where I was living at the time.  Cell phones were still rare in the US at that time, but the web started to take off, and soon there was Netscape.

All of this ran over 2400baud modems.. then 9600baud, then 12.8k and then 52.8k modems over the phone lines.

By the time I got back from Germany in 1999, the internet was moving beyond the colleges and into the wider realm of the world, but most people still didn’t have email, and only the hippest businesses had webpages.

In 2000, “google” still was an arcane term meaning 1 x 10^100.   By 2004, Google was handling 87% of all the search requests on the web and by 2006 the verb “to google” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Then came facebook.  Launched in 2004, it was opened to anyone over age 13 by 2006.  I didn’t join, until goaded by my students in November 2008–after the election of Barak Obama.

Looking back, it now seems hard to think of society without these things.. and to marvel at how much richer and more interconnected they have allowed me to become to various people and to the broad swath of information that is out there.

And this is without even mentioning the huge rise in cell phone.  In 1997, less than 1 in 5 people had them in the US, now there are more cell phone subscriptions than people here.  That dynamic–and the merging of computing and these phones in smartphones– has generated the creation of a whole other swath of technologies and networks–twitter, for example–that are driving a push  towards an ever more networked society.

Today, we hear about the switch to “the cloud” for computing services and data storage. Based on the integration of mobile networking, google searching/computing and data storage, and the desire for people to be connected at every instant of their life with access to their data anywhere, the cloud seems like a smart solution to this.

And, in many ways, it is.  It is true that the growth of this kind of virtualization of our data and computing away from the specific hardware located in our homes does provide certain kinds of access and efficiency that were never possible before.  Or rather, this kind of increase in efficiency has happened before–think about the invention of the telephone and how much that increased communication speed and efficiency.

The cloud just takes that to a new level with the added abilities of our massive new reliance on computing power.

And yet, part of me is leery of all of this.  While I might appreciate the cloud as a way to back up my files in a secure place in case some sort of natural catastrophe were to specifically happen to my home, I don’t feel comfortable relying upon it 100% for all of my computing or storage needs–and I’m not all that enthused to buy into it so fast.

Now–perhaps this is just some kind of “old person” stubbornness to embrace the new technology.. but I’m not so sure.  Things like Microsoft’s introduction of Microsoft 365–where you buy a subscription to the software where you pay them every year to use their products, without ever really owning the software–seem like a clear outgrowth of this kind of cloud model and also seem like what these companies want the futre to be like.

In essence, a very decentralized model of computing–with each person using their personal computer, having their own files, and own copies of software in their possession… in their ownership… is being changed and replaced.  In its stead, you are getting people with the equivalent of fancy terminals that will access their files and software from some other location, where the actual processing can be done more efficiently.

And–a I said above–that makes a certain kind of sense.  In my mind, the analogy of an animal having a “brain” that does most of the decision-making and sensory input perception, amongst other things, has been shown to be orders of magnitude more effective at accomplishing various kinds of tasks.  It’s a lot quicker and more efficient at handling communication and it can adapt to various conditions a lot faster.

The Cloud, in certain ways, would be very much like the way the brain is a centralized and complex system for handling certain kinds of tasks.

But this analogy also points out a major weakness of both systems.

Namely, any creature that relies upon this brain for getting around in the world effectively really doesn’t do so well if this brain is damaged or destroyed.  In fact, brain damage–which is not that hard to inflict–is one of the quickest ways of utterly disabling and ending such a being.

What does that tell us about a society that comes to rely upon this kind of information network for its functioning?

Well, it tells me that we ought to be MIGHTY careful about such systems and figure out ways of making sure they are utterly robust and reliable, because the use of them seems more and more like a conscious attempt to put all of our eggs in just one big virtual basket.

That doesn’t sit well with me.  In an age where we are rediscovering the possibility of decentralized and distributed power generation through wind, solar, and other more renewable systems–the choice to start centralizing our information systems seems like a move in the wrong direction.

Perhaps this is incorrect, though.  Perhaps distributed power generation–the equivalent of muscles and even more specifically mitochondria in each cell of our body–does make sense when connected to concentrated information processing systems (our brains).

I’ll have to ponder this a bit more.. but it seems like something that more people should be pondering also…and some of them do seem to be..

About Prof. Woland

I contain multitudes. Come meet us.
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