Google's Chrome OS, Cloud-oriented Computing, and User Freedom; or The Emperor has No Clothes!

Google has recently announced their plan to release a new open source operating system called Chrome OS, which they hope to make freely available by mid 2010. A quick review of write-ups about Google's announcement (like this piece by Miguel Helft and Ashlee Vance in the New York Times) reveals that many view the proposed Chrome OS to be an innovative approach to desktop computing, since the idea is to make Google's Chrome browser the focus of the operating system. With little or no native applications to bog it down, Chrome OS would thus provide the user with quick access to the Internet, and nearly all computing tasks would take place through web applications such as Google Docs and Picasa.

It might first seem counter-intuitive, but by giving away Chrome OS and their web services, Google will ultimately grow their business. Google makes its money from targeted advertising. Widespread usage of Chrome OS would mean that more people would be doing their computing in the clouds , which would in turn provide Google greater opportunities to offer more precisely targeted advertisements at a greater quantity, and hence greater opportunity to increase revenue.

If Google's cloud-centric operating system catches on, it will most certainly pose a challenge to businesses that currently sell traditional desktop operating systems, such as Microsoft and Apple. With an orientation on native rather than web-based applications (e.g. Word, Windows Media Player/Quicktime, iPhoto, etc.), Windows and OS X stand in the way of Google making more money, since the more time one spends on those native applications, the less time one spends online using Google's web-based services. By offering Chrome OS for free, Google undercuts Windows, OS X, and their expensive software, driving consumers to use Google's services instead.

All this might sound like a big win for the consumer, since he or she will get to use quality applications on a purportedly more reliable and efficient operating system at no cost. Under any ordinary circumstance, who could argue with that? But herein lies the problem. This is no ordinary circumstance. We're now dealing with cloud-oriented computing, and with this, free comes at a high price.

Cloud computing can be quite useful. However, to make an operating system completely dependent upon web services for its most basic functions poses certain dangers to the user. First, all one's computing becomes dependent on having an Internet connection, which means one must have an Internet service provider in order to utilize the system to its fullest potential. Google will likely further develop Google Gears, which currently allows the user to work with certain web-based applications offline, but it will probably never be able to provide the same functionality to web-based applications as one has with native applications. So for those who don't want or can't afford to pay for an Internet connection (yes, I know, this is a small demographic in many nations), or for those who have no access to the internet for an extended period of time, Chrome OS would appear to be practically useless. Even for those who have an Internet connection, why would they want to have that cost become an inherent part of their ability to use their computer?

Second, it isn't clear whether one will have the ability to write and run non-web-based applications on one's computer. Google may allow for such a feature, but it will probably be disabled by default, seriously restricted, or come at a price. These applications will compete for the user's time, which he or she would otherwise spend using the web-based applications that bring Google revenue. So the freedom of the user to write his or her own program and run it on his or her computer the way he or she sees fit will likely be restricted or taken away.

Finally, cloud-oriented computing means that one's private data will not (only?) be on your personal hard drive, but it will (also?) be sitting on the hard drive of some third party server, meaning God-knows-who could have access to your private information, doing God-knows-what with it. This raises a series of important related questions: is data in the clouds ultimately public? We're talking about a centralized storage location that contains very intimate details about the lives and dealings of billions of people the world over. This places unthinkable power in the hands of who or whatever owns that centralized storage location. If the information is there for another to be accessed, in what sense is it still private information? Do the storage location owners only own the storage, or can they lay any claim to the contents of the storage, as well? What can they do with the information, and who or what is to stop them if they try to do something with it that they shouldn't? Certainly the private/public distinction begins to get blurred; at the very least, this would involve having limited control over any personal information stored in the cloud. And when all or nearly all one's computing takes place in the cloud, one would have limited control over a large bulk of that information.

When all is said and done, the Chrome OS platform may end up being cheaper, more efficient, and more innovative than Windows or OS X. It may be built around the Linux kernel. It may also be touted as a free/libre open source project, but it cannot help but result in an arrangement that is at least as equally unethical as the arrangement between proprietary software companies and their end users, since users will end up surrendering to their service provider a modest amount of control over system functionality, as well as security of personal data. Chrome OS may be free/libre open source in name and in practice, but the very nature of the relationship between user and provider that cloud-centric computing fosters entails that it cannot be fee/libre open source in spirit.

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Google's Chrome OS, Cloud-oriented Computing, and User Freedom; or The Emperor has No Clothes! by Nathan M. Blackerby is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.


Has Web 2.0 had a Corrosive Effect on Democracy?

Below is an entry I published awhile back on a collaborative blog that apparently (and unfortunately) isn't going to materialize anytime soon. The piece contains some of my thoughts on a particular criticism often leveled against the principles behind Web 2.0. I specifically address Andrew Keen's view in this piece, but his is representative of a select group of other media and technology analysts (e.g. Bryan Appleyard), so my remarks should be more widely applicable:

About two months ago, I watched a documentary on PBS entitled The Truth According to Wikipedia. As the title suggests, the film focuses on Wikipedia. But it's really an exploration of how the Internet has enabled worldwide collaborative ventures, and how this has affected the way the world gathers, assembles, shares, uses, and discusses information. The creators were able to present in a clear, informative manner (a rarity for issues-based documentaries, in my experience) the reasoning of both proponents and critics of Wikipedia-style approaches to online media.

One of the critics featured in the film is Andrew Keen, founder of the defunct website, audiocafe.com. During the 90's and early 2000's, Keen was a strong proponent of Internet ideals, such as universal access to digital content, but more recently has developed a profound distaste for all things Web 2.0. In the past few years, he has gone on the offensive, arguing that the core values of the New Internet - decentralization, participation, and user-generation of content - have had an increasingly corrosive effect on our economy, politics, and culture. Consider the following excerpt from the film, where Keen addresses an audience of Web 2.0 architects and enthusiasts who believe that their,

'MyWorld' ... will lead to 'more democracy, more equality, and more freedom.' Now I [i.e. Keen] strongly disagree; that's the essence of my polemic. I argue 'me' - that this personalization of media, personalization of culture, the fragmentation of society, indeed, into 'me,' into everything becoming increasingly more personalized, is resulting in reality in less democracy, less equality, and less freedom. (The Truth According to Wikipedia, @ circa 12:15 - 13:01)

A bold thesis, to be sure. One that challenged me to evaluate my own intuitions on this issue and intrigued me enough to read Keen's book on the subject, The Cult of the Amateur. I wanted to see how strong his argument was in support of his view. It essentially boiled down to this:

1. In order for our culture to survive. society needs "gatekeepers," individuals whose judgments and abilities to perform certain duties can be trusted.

2. Experts and professionals are the gatekeepers of society.

3. But Web 2.0 principles destroy expertise and professionalism, since they require that one extol the anonymous amateur, elevating amateur judgment and performance to a level equal with and sometimes even superior to that of the expert or professional.

4. Therefore, Web 2.0 principles are a threat to the survival of our culture.

Keen spends virtually no time arguing for (1) and (2), instead opting to make the case for (3). He cites statistics about how, since the mid-90's, profits have increasingly fallen in professional journalism and the music and film industries; he highlights cases where misinformation spread via the Internet has had damaging effects on people's personal and professional lives; and he points to trends in marketing that increasingly blur the line between advertisement and content. According to Keen, this evidence not only shows that blogs, social networking cites, and peer-to-peer file sharing technologies are responsible for lost revenue in journalism and the entertainment industry, effectively ruining the careers of media professionals the world over, it shows that amateurs and advertisers are taking over their roles and filling the Web with untrustworthy, low-quality content.

Of course, Keen's own interpretation of this evidence is questionable: one could maintain that professional journalism and the music and movie industries are seeing reduced profits because they employ a legacy business model ill-equipped for the digital age, and one could dig in one's heels and cite contrary evidence regarding the amount and quality of trustworthy content on the Internet. But debating the fine points about how Keen's evidence should be interpreted is really a moot point. His analysis suffers from a more basic problem insofar as he has, at best, shown only that increased untrustworthiness of Internet content and decreased revenue in professional journalism has coincided with the implementation of Web 2.0 principles when what he needs to show in order for his argument to work is that the implementation of Web 2.0 principles has caused the supposed 'destruction of expertise and professionalism.'

But suppose for a moment that Keen does establish a causal connection. Should it then be beyond any reasonable doubt that Web 2.0 threatens to unravel our culture? This hinges on the plausibility of Keen's assumptions that gatekeepers are needed for the continuation of culture and that only experts and professionals can fill that niche. Now even granting that professionals are to be exclusively identified with gate keepers, it doesn't necessarily follow that professionalization of a field or cultural activity will guarantee its survival. Indeed, as I have written elsewhere about my own field (i.e. philosophy), professionalization has largely proven to have a cannibalizing effect and the key to its survival may perhaps involve some degree of "informalizing" and "amatuerizing." So, contra Keen, Web 2.0 principles might enhance rather than threaten the survivability of culture in at least some cases.

Of course, Keen could admit that a healthy dose of amateurism is needed, while still maintaining that a society's culture can't do without its gatekeepers. But this begs the question: just what is it about the role of the gatekeeper that makes him or her so indispensable? According to Keen, culture is about truth, and "the gate keeper is the key player in the truth, because the gatekeeper, whether they're an editor at an encyclopedia, or a record agent, or a newspaper publisher, they're the one's who determine truth" (The Truth According to Wikipedia, @ circa 24:00-24:20) And in The Cult of the Amatuer, Keen draws on the work of anthropologist Ernest Gellner and political scientist Benedict Anderson to explain that gate keepers provide society cohesiveness by presenting the public a shared narrative and common worldview:

As anthropologist Ernest Gellner argues in his classic Nations and Nationalism, the core of the modern social contract is rooted in our common culture, in our language, and in our shared assumptions about the world. Modern man is socialized by what the anthropologist calls a common "high culture." Our community and cultural identity, Geller says, come from newspapers and magazines, television, books, and movies. Mainstream media provides us with common frames of reference, a common conversation, and common values. Benedict Anderson, in Imagined Communities, explains that modern communities are established through the telling of common stories, the formation of communal myths, the shared sense of participating in the same daily narrative of life (The Cult of the Amatuer, p. 80).

The notion that truth, trustworthiness, and their intimate relationship (among other things) lie at the heart of culture should be unproblematic. However, Keen's description of culture's gatekeepers as determiners of truth sounds far less like our own cultural ideal - namely, a culture that is both free and democratic - and more like the ideal state of Plato's Republic. Indeed, Keen's gate keepers are virtually indistinguishable from Plato's description of the guardian class, whose role is to present a noble lie to an overwhelming mass of people inherently incapable of understanding truth. The culture Keen envisions is oligarchic, one in which societal control is placed in the hands of an elite class who have presumably exclusive access to truth and a monopoly on creativity. By contrast, a democratic society, whether it has professionals or not, leaves no room for Keen's gate keepers. It assumes a fundamentally different epistemology and "technology" - one in which each person is presumed to be endowed with an inborn capability to discern truth and to utilize their creativity for productive purposes. Reality is supposed to be the determiner of truth, and it is through observation, conversation, and debate that we arrive at it. If anything, then, the principles of Web 2.0 would seem to compliment or support the ideal of democratic culture, rather than usher in it's demise.

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Has Web 2.0 had a Corrosive Effect on Democracy? by Nathan M. Blackerby is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.