Charles Leadbeater: We are about to get a very different kind of Internet, one replete with huge potential and danger. The spread of cloud computing will allow much greater personalisation and mobility, constant real time connection and easier collaboration. Cloud computing will give rise to a cloud culture. Many of the purveyors of that culture will be cloud capitalists. Our chief challenge will be to make cloud culture and cloud capitalism work, for public as well as private good.
The Net we have grown up with was based around data and software stored quite close to where it is used on personal and mainframe computers. That gave people a sense of ownership and control, exploiting cheap local storage because the bandwidth to download data from remote sources was too expensive and unreliable. The Net was a way for us easily to link these disparate and disconnected machines, with their separate data and software.
In the world of cloud computing our data — emails, documents, pictures, songs — would be stored remotely in a digital cloud hanging above us, always there for us to access from any device we like: computer, television, games console, handheld and mobile, embedded in our kitchen table, bathroom mirror or car dashboard. We should be able to access our data from anywhere, thanks to always on broadband and draw down as much or as little as and when we need. Instead of installing software on our computer we would pay for it only when we needed it.
The most familiar early version of a cloud based service is web mail — Googlemail and hotmail — in which email messages are stored on remote servers which can be accessed from anywhere. Google also provides ways for people to store and then share documents and spreadsheets, so many people can access the same document. Facebook and Twitter are like vast clouds of personal information held in a cloud. Wikipedia is a cloud of self-managed, user generated information. Open source software platforms like Drupal are software clouds which coders can draw down from and add to.
Sharing our programmes and data makes a lot of sense, at least in theory. Pooling storage and software with others should lower the cost. Cloud computing would turn computing power into just another utility that we would access much as we turn on a tap for water.
As computing becomes a utility it will power many more devices, many of them with no user interface, more of them mobile and handheld. The cloud should also encourage collaboration. Different people, using different devices should be able to access the same documents and resources more easily. Work on shared projects will become easier, especially as collaboration software and web video conferencing becomes easier to use. This should allow far more of what Hal Varian, Google's chief economist calls “combinatorial innovation” as developers mash-up data from different sources, as many people are doing already with Google maps. It is more sensible not to think of the cloud but clouds taking different shapes and forms.
The clouds in our skies take many different forms by mixing the same basic ingredients. They are often huge but fleeting, rarely retain their shape for more than a few minutes and often migrate from one form to another in the course of a day. Clouds range from the giant cumulonimbus to the shreds of stratus fractus, the fair weather cloud cumulus fractus to the beautiful whisps of cirrus uncinus. Clouds can be produced en mass by the advance of a depression or as a single form by a local convective eddy. Clouds live at ground level in the form of fog and at very high altitudes, the famous Cloud 9. If we are moving to a future of cloud computing and cloud culture then we should hope for a similar variety in the forms it takes.
The basic classification of clouds into cirrus (fibres), stratus (layers) and cumulus (heaps) was developed by Luke Howard, an amateur meterologist working in London's East End. Howard's classification, first published in 1803, allows for constant mutation as one form of cloud becomes another: thus cirrus clouds that are becoming stratus clouds are cirrostratus. That has since become a tenfold basic classification from 0 for cirrus to 9 for cumulonimbus, the highest climbing cloud. Within this scheme there are 52 main varieties of clouds, from low cumulus clouds — cumuluhumilis through to high altitude cirroculumolacunosus.
We may well need something as flexible and expansive to distinguish the many varieties of digital clouds that could emerge in the decades to come.
Digital clouds will be either commercial, social or public. Commercial clouds are either enabled or managed and supported by a commercial provider, who might also mine data from the cloud and provide tools for people to contribute. Flickr's clouds of photographs would probably fit into the commercial cloud sector. Google and Amazon are offering commercial cloud services. The World Digital Library, on the other hand, which is being created by government funded libraries around the world, is prime example of a public cloud. Wikipedia is a social cloud: it has mainly been created through voluntary effort.
Clouds will be either open or closed. Bechtel's cloud is a private, closed and commercial cloud for the use of its employees. Twitter is nominally a commercial cloud but it is very open to join. Wikipedia is both social and open. The cloud of online activity around the Muslim Brotherhood is social but closed. Governments are creating both open and closed clouds. The open data movement is forcing governments to be more open with data and to allow social entrepreneurs and citizens to reuse it. Meanwhile governments are also creating large closed clouds of data for intelligence and security purposes.
Some clouds will be fairly permanent while others are more transitory and emergent. Science, for example, is providing models for what might happen to the rest of cloud culture. Some clouds of scientific data and global collaboration are quite institutionalised and permanent, for example, around the Large Hadron Collider at Cern. Other clouds are more fleeting and passing. Viral marketing campaigns only succeed if they allow people to spread content very easily and openly and when successful create huge balloons of media activity. These clouds are already remaking our culture.
Culture is our ever-evolving store of images, texts and ideas through which we make sense and add meaning to our world. Our culture, in the broadest sense, helps us to frame and shape our identity, to say who we are, where and when we come from. Culture is not something we choose but find ourselves belonging to; it shapes what matters to us, and how we see the world. A culture that is alive is never entirely closed. As culture is vital to what matters to us and explaining who we are, so giving other people access to what we count as our culture is a vital way for us to understand one another, what we share and what makes us special.
If culture provides much of our sense of identity, then creativity helps to give us our sense of agency: who we want to be, what mark we want to leave. Culture gives us roots; creativity a sense of growth and possibility. Creativity gives us a way to add to and remake our cultural stock: it allows us to escape being entirely defined by our traditions.
The growth of the digital cloud will change culture, creativity and the relationship between them. Digital stores of data in the cloud, ubiquitous broadband, new search technologies, access through multiple devices — should make more culture, more available than ever before to more people. We are also living through a massive proliferation of expressive capacity to add to and remix culture with cheaper, more powerful tools for making music and films, taking and showing images, drawing up designs and games. That is why we are in the midst of a series of cultural eruptions that are throwing up vast clouds of new Pro-Am culture. For some these clouds are beautiful and inspiring. Others believe cloud culture will drop the equivalent of acid rain. Sometimes there will be mushroom clouds, huge explosions of activity, around crises like Iran and Haiti.
This is the cloud culture equation. New stores of digital cultural artefacts will become more accessible in more ways to more people that ever. More people will be able to explore these digital stores to find things of value to them. That could set in train a process of akin to the collaborative creativity that drives open source software. The open source software movement's rallying cry is: “many eyes make bugs shallow.” The more people that test out a programme the quicker the bugs will be found. The cultural equivalent is that the more eyes make culture richer. The more people that see a collection of content, from more vantage points, the more likely they are to find value in it, probably value that a small team of professional curators may have missed.
We will be equipped with better tools to allow us to make our own contribution, to post our photograph or composition. We will be able to mash-up, remix, amend and adapt existing content, even if only in small ways. As we collaborate with others who are also interested the same issues so this will throw up clouds of cultural activity as people debate, compare and refine what they share. These clouds will often have at their core high quality professionally produced content. But that will also attract to it skilled and dedicated amateurs as well as general users.
That equation will produce in the decade to come a vast cultural eruption — a mushroom cloud of culture.
The Cloud Culture Equation
More cultural heritage stored in digital form.
More accessible to more people.
People better equipped with more tools to add creatively to the collection.
Exponential growth in mass cultural expression
Cloud computing will be like a giant machine for making clouds of culture.
This could give us a way to connect with one another across different cultures. Disparate and particular interests could be brought together and connected in new ways. This will not be a new common global culture but at least common reference points and shared platforms for diverse cultural expression.
The dominant story of modern cultural relations is that ideas have spread around the world from Europe and the US, especially through industrial era media, which requires heavy capital investment for production and distribution. Whether in film, architecture or literature, the modern international style was largely an extension of the Western style, sometimes imposing itself upon and often inserting itself into foreign contexts. Industrial era media — film is a classic case — is still dominated by small centres of production in the West such as Hollywood. Half the 185 countries in the United Nations have never made a feature length film.
This has lead many critics to allege that Western culture carried by Western media is eradicating distinctive national and local cultures and languages. Jeremy Tunstall's The Media Are Americancaptured this mood along with descriptions of the process as Dallasifcation, Coca colonisation and McDisneyfication. Seven of the world's top ten media companies are American, among them Walt Disney, Viacom, News Corporation and Time Warner. There are other important sources of film and television: Bollywood makes more films than Hollywood, the Latin American telenovela has a global following. Yet the US and some parts of Europe dominate traditional, industrial era media.
In 2002 UNESCO estimated rich countries exported $45bn worth of cultural goods and services, compared with $329m from the poorest countries. Three quarters of the world music industry worth $31bn at the start of the decade was accounted for by the US and Europe. Just 1% of recorded music came from Africa.
This West's cultural dominance has spawned its own response, a defence of particular, distinctive cultures, particularly those at risk, whether fast disappearing languages being displaced by the many varieties of English, religious faiths threatened by Western individualism or local producers being run out of business by global brands. Cultural relations can become cultural conflict, whether in Thomas Friedman's Lexus and the Olive Tree, Benjamin Barber's McWorld vs Jihad or Samuel Huntingdon's Clash of Civilisations . As Edward Said argued in Culture and Imperialism, the yearning to return to distinctive cultural roots can quickly become a breeding ground for fundamentalism. Culture becomes a protective enclosure for endangered identities rather than something that unfolds and opens out. Meic Pearse's Why The Rest Hate the West: Understanding the Roots of Global Rage argued the spread of Western culture, especially in the way it threatened traditional moralities and authority, would license violent reaction and resuscitate traditional cultures. In much of the world young consumers want western brands. In some parts of the world the new cool is to reject them in favour of tradition.
The truth is few people are one thing and one thing only. Our cultures are increasingly entangled, by their shared histories and the reality of international travel, trade and communications. Writers like Ulrich Beck in Cosmopolitan Vision and G. Pascal Zachary, The Global Me: The New Cosmopolitans take this as their starting point to celebrate the rich and poor migrants of this liquid world, living in diasporas, circulating from a home in one country to work in another. Beck describes a global culture of mobility, constant and eclectic consumption, openness to others and ceaseless connections between cultures. Marwan Kraidy in Hybridity or the Cultural Logic of Globalisation and Jan Nederveen Pieterse in Globalisation and Culture: Global Melange , focus on a culture shaped by people with hyphenated identities — Black-British, Chinese-American, what economic geographer Annalee Saxenian calls the new argonauts in her book of that title, people who shuttle from Bangalore to Silicon Valley, between Pune and Dubai.
These stories — Western domination; resistance to it; celebration of difference and the culture of modern nomads and hybrids — have shaped our view of the possibilities and the power embedded in international cultural relations. Cloud culture offers to create another story, one which allows for much greater diversity of cultural expression from many more sources, as technology costs fall, but which also allows for much more diffuse reciprocity and connection, based on the shared resources of the cloud. Cloud culture is a recipe for more cultural difference to be expressed, on an equal footing and for more connections to be made to find points of shared interest. The task for cultural relations in this context is to allow as many people as possible to contribute and connect, translate and blend culture.
Cloud culture should be a rare and delicate mix: more decentralised, plural and collaborative; less hierarchical, proprietary and money driven; the boundaries between amateur and professional, consumer and producer, grassroots and mainstream are breached, if not erased. Open source software communities and collaborative science, based on shared data sources and open access journals, point the way for what will be possible in other areas.
Yet for all its promise that is no more than a possibility. Indeed the emergence of this new communication based power, vested in forms of mass collaboration in civil society, is already provoking a fierce struggle, as governments and companies, try to wrest control over the cloud away from citizens.
Cyberspace should help civil society organisations and campaigns. The costs of political organisation are falling. Yet as fast as this civic space is opening up, authoritarian governments are becoming increasingly adept and sophisticated in closing it down. The idea that authoritarian governments will always be so top heavy that they will be outwitted by the fast moving throng on the web is mistaken. As Evgeny Morozov, a contributing editor at Foreign Policy magazine, shows, many regimes are eschewing direct confrontation in favour of more, subtle, pernicious and pervasive forms of cloud management.
The Thai authorities, for example, have used crowdsourcing to uncover the addresses of websites making comments critical of the Royal family, which are gathered in a site called ProtectTheKing.net. In Georgia the authorities have helped to mobilise “denial of service” attacks on blogging platforms to force them to evict bloggers critical of the government. The most critical bloggers have been turned into refugees unable to find a home in cyberspace. In China up to 50,000 people are members of the so-called 50cent party: the sum they are paid for noting a critical comment on a web site or making a favourable comment in support of the government.
Even when cloud culture does seem to threaten authoritarian rule it is easy to overestimate its power. A classic example is the role played by Twitter in the protests in Iran in June 2009 following the country's disputed elections. Twitter became one of the ways that web users in Iran distributed news of protests and crackdowns, as Mir Hossein Mousavi supporters took to the streets to protest against the victory awarded to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Twitter provided a direct and compelling connection with events in Iran as they unfolded. Original tweets from Iran were passed on — re-tweeted — by other Twitter users in the west, often people with large followings, amplifying their impact. The scale and intensity of the activity led some web commentators to dub it “the Twitter revolution.” Between June 7th and June 26th there were 2,024,166 tweets about the Iranian election. For a few days it seemed as if Iran would provide conclusive proof of the web's power to remake the world. As the dust settled however the complex reality emerged more clearly. A study of 79,000 tweets about the protests by Mike Edwards, a social network researcher at the Parsons New School for Design, found that a third were re-tweets, people passing on an original posting. The majority of Mousavi supporters are young and urban, the main demographic of Twitter users. About 93% of Iranian Twitter users are based in Tehran. Most importantly the numbers do not add up. According to Sysomos, which analyses social media activity, there was a surge in Twitter accounts in Iran from 8,654 in May to 19,235 in June 2009. Part of this surge, however, might have been due to Twitter users outside Iran registering in the country to confuse the authorities. Yet even the higher figure of 19,235 is only equivalent to 0.027% of Iran's population (70,049,262 according to the 2006 census.) A survey carried out by the The Centre for Public Opinion and the New American Foundation found a third of Iranians have internet access. That would mean Twitter users at the time of the revolution made up 0.082% of Internet users in Iran.
Clouds come and go, they balloon up into the sky and then they disperse. That is why cloud culture can be both mesmerising and bewildering.
Not only do these authoritarian regimes often use technology developed in the West to monitor and disrupt online dissent, they also use Western government policies to justify their actions. Recent moves in Australia and the UK to put more onus on internet service providers to control how the web is used will have been welcomed by authoritarian regimes keen to justify their own controls.
Keeping the cloud open for cultural exchange within means we should focus on:
• Providing online activists in authoritarian regimes with help to find their way around firewalls and to connect them with potential supporters outside.
• Defending their rights to free speech and association.
• Avoiding restrictions in the West in the name of security and decency that authoritarian regimes will use as an excuse for their own efforts to control the web.
• Empowering NGOs to monitor authoritarian regimes' censorship the web.
• Asking Western technology companies to publicly account for any sales of technology to authoritarian regimes that might be used to control or limit public access to the web, just as arms companies are expected to account for sales of sensitive equipment.
Another threat to cloud culture comes from copyright owners who see the internet not as a technology of cultural freedom but of destruction: it is destroying their business models by making it easier to copy content for free. They argue this will undermine the creation of high quality commercial cultural products — whether books, films, television. Far from opening up a cultural cornucopia, quality culture will be blighted by a mass of low grade, user generated content. Critics such as Andrew Keen and Nicholas Carr argue that the web is already drenching us in the cultural equivalent of acid rain — poor quality, short attention span, amateur culture — will displace crafted, professional culture, which requires patience and application.
To prevent that destruction, traditional publishers and content owners, argue they need increased control over how their content is used, reaching deep down into how people listen to, watch and share culture. As content can so easily be copied and shared, complete control over a single piece of content — like a song or a book chapter — would be impossible without control over all the links made by someone sharing it. The promise of the open, collaborative web could eventually license equally pervasive forms of control in the name of established commercial cultural industries threatened by the web. Not surprisingly content owners are pressing for expanded protections, longer copyright terms and harsher punishments for illegal downloading. All of this could limit the spread, scale and creativity of open cloud culture. Our cultural clouds will be rendered sterile and inert.
Already much of our culture that could be in the open cloud is kept out of it by copyright. According to the British Film Institute, for example, thousands of British films are under copyright but no longer commercially available. The copyright holders do not think they will be able to make money from them but nor are the films in the public domain, free to be used and reused. Clearing the rights to use these orphaned works is still very hard. A tragically high proportion of our culture lies in this cultural coma, including perhaps 95% of commercially published books.
If content in the cloud is entangled in copyright and other forms of intellectual property then it will become increasingly difficult to mingle, match and collaborate. The creative potential of the web, to create new mixes, will be vastly reduced. To promote more open cultural relations on the web we should focus on:
• Finding collaborative solutions to the problem of orphaned works, perhaps by allocating them to forms of collective ownership, which would make it far simpler for people seeking to enjoy or adapt the content to negotiate rights. The collective owners would own the rights and hold money for the original rights holders.
• Governments should resist attempts to extend copyright terms.
• The copyright regime should increasingly put the onus on rights holders to justify their need for copyright and to pay for extensions. Any work not re-copyrighted after the expiry of its original term would automatically fall into public ownership rather than being orphaned.
• The presumption should be that all cultural products are in the public domain after a basic period of copyright or intellectual protection has expired.
• New forms of creative licensing are required, modelled on open access and creative commons, which are designed to allow sharing but also to clearly apportion credit to original work and authors.
• Most media industries will need new business models, which are tailored to allow more interaction with content and more peer-to-peer distribution. Countries that experiment successfully with these models will lead the next wave of cultural and creative industries.
• Finding ways to create more Pro-Am cultural exchanges which bring together the best of professional and amateur content.
A third threat comes from the new media moguls, the cloud capitalists: Facebook, Apple, Google, Salesforce, Twitter, who will seek to make money by creating and managing clouds for us.
These cloud capitalists are the new powers behind global cultural relations. Their rise has sparked an increasingly vicious civil war with the media old guard led by Rupert Murdoch. This battle between old and new media powers however has distracted attention from the question of how these companies will organise cloud culture on our behalf. Elements of their business models resemble traditional public services: Google's work with a consortium of libraries around the world to digitise books that are out of copyright; ITunes U provides thousands of models of course material for free. However these companies are also businesses: they will want to organise the cloud to make money. By the end of the decade Google will have unprecedented control over literary culture, past, present and future. Leave aside issues of trust, privacy and security, commercial providers of cloud services will have strong incentives to manage their users to maximise revenues and so to discourage them from roaming from one service to another.
We will find our choices, social connection and searches being shaped by the clumsy algorithms these companies come up with: Facebook recently recommended I reconnect with my wife because we seemed to have lost touch; Amazon helpfully suggested I buy a copy of my own book. I love my iPhone but I am not completely convinced I want Apple to become my conduit to the web and so to the rest of the world and its culture. The coming issue then is to counter the threat of corporate control of the cloud. To do that we need to focus on:
• Maintaining a diversity of funding for the development of web platforms, so that some will be social and public to complement the corporate platforms. Wikipedia is a prime example of a cloud funded by voluntary and social contributions. Open access science is promoting publicly funded clouds of scientific information. Public funding for open, shared cultural clouds, like the World Digital Library will be vital as a counterpoint to more commercial services.
• Ensuring people have a diversity of potential suppliers of cloud based services: anti-monopoly legislation covering social media and web platforms will be central. At some point Facebook will become an incumbent social networking platform that stalls innovation from new entrants.
• Keeping open spaces for experimentation on the web, rather than allowing incumbent media companies to occupy emerging spaces.
• Defending net neutrality rather than a system in which those that pay more — large companies — automatically get a much better service.
• Ensuring people have freedom to move between suppliers of net services and content, to avoid being locked-in to cloud services provided by one supplier.
Traditional media companies are trying to stall and resist the emergence of cloud culture. New media companies are engaged in a battle with one another over who will control which bits of the cloud. Governments are worried that the cloud will just making governing harder. What is likely to get lost in all of this are the interests of citizens, consumers and cultural creators.
We are living at a time of huge cultural possibility. We have access to untold stores of culture in digital form. We have more tools to allow us to search, modify and amend the ingredients of these stores and to create our own cultural products. We are more able than ever to find outlets for our cultural creativity and to connect with people who share our interests, our culture.
In the 20th century cultural experience was mainly associated with watching, listening and reading. The dominant mass culture — television — is engaging without being too demanding. It offers stimulation while people are at rest. As a result it is often wonderful but oddly hollow. The traditional alternative to this mass culture of enjoyable watching was the more demanding and educative high culture of intellectual inspiration and challenge. But now another alternative is emerging, a mass culture which is more participative and collaborative, which is about searching, doing, sharing, making, modifying. It is stimulating because it people become active participants, makers of culture not simply receivers.
The optimists see in this shift great possibility, a global platform for cultural expression and exchange, which will be more open and connected, more diverse and plural. The optimists see vast new clouds of cultural expression mushrooming across the landscape, in a variety of wonderful shapes and sizes. The sceptics warn that these clouds are more likely to produce the cultural equivalent of acid rain or worse heavy storms. They worry we are heading for a culture of constant interference, noise and distraction, in which the more music and writing, photos and films there are, the more cultural chaos and social disorder there will be. It will be harder and harder, they warn, to cull any lasting sense of meaning from the vast fog of meaningless cultural mediocrity about to engulf us.
This essay has sought to map out a position that is both hopeful but realistic. The web has huge and still unfolding potential to allow for more cultural self-expression and connection. Our interests as citizens and consumers will be best served by their being a rich variety of cultural clouds: public and private, social and voluntary, global and very local, cosmopolitan and nationalist. We should seek the maximum possible diversity of clouds rather than thinking simply of the cloud. It is inevitable that some of cloud culture will not be benign and may well be predatory and even vicious.
However there is still untold potential for us to enrich our own cultures, understand one another's cultures more fully and to enjoy greater freedom of cultural expression. That possibility, a new kind of global cultural commons, will only be kept open if we resist the threats to it from governments and companies, new and old, seeking to control cloud culture for their own ends. The new kinds of cultural relations the web seems to offer will only come about through thousands of struggles as citizens try to hold onto the possibility that at last it could be our culture not someone else's.