On Resisting Cloud-y Transparency

Little did I know how literally and therefore stupidly Apple would take the motto of my last post, that the best protection is transparency.  But first the backstory.

In the early days, there were two grand and divergent ideas about the direction computing should take. Many thought that the future was mainframes with dumb terminals networked to them. They thought this partly because in the fifties the smallest functioning computer would barely fit in a large master bedroom. (Who could have imagined fitting one in your pocket?) Fortunately, others with greater imaginations dreamed of a future in which personal computers dominated.

This was not merely a technical debate. Many thinkers realized that if mainframes came to dominate computing, power and access to knowledge would be further centralized in the hands of the government and corporations, whereas the promise of personal computing was to devolve power to individuals. It has been very significant for human culture that the personal computer won out. (For more, check out John Markoff’s interesting book: What the Doormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry)

Since its inception, Apple has stood for the vision of empowering individuals by building personal computers that are elegant and easy for everyone to use. It has thought and designed different, and it’s done more than any other company to put serious computing power into the hands of individuals.

Unfortunately, with the release of its new operating system, Mavericks, Apple has taken a big step (not its first, alas, but perhaps its biggest) away from its founding vision. Its slogan for Mavericks—”Power to the Desktop”—rings false.  “Power to the Cloud Server Farms” is more accurate.

After upgrading to Mavericks I found that my calendar and contacts no longer sync between my iMac and my phone. Being moderately tech savvy, I spent some time troubleshooting but to no avail. Then I grew suspicious. So I did a little research and learned—to my horror—that Apple no longer supports local syncing between devices. Instead, if you want to sync you have to use iCloud, or set-up an equivalent cloud-based system.*

In short, rather than give individuals the choice, Apple has decided for its customers that some of their most personal data— calendar and contacts—should be entrusted to its servers. Given how readily the big tech companies (Apple and Google included) have complied with government requests or subpoenies for their customers’ data, and given the  revelations about the extent to which the NSA is spying on all of us, it’s outrageous that Apple would make this decision for its users. I wonder if this decision would have been made were Steve Jobs still at the helm. Channeling Jobs, I can almost hear him say, from the grave, ‘Apple, your work on Mavericks is shit.’

Becoming more transparent and honest with yourself and the circle of your familiars is one thing, but only fools believe corporations and the government should be entrusted with all your personal information. Cloudy transparency is no protection at all.

*For the geeks among you, yes, of course there are workarounds, like starting your own private server. But no solution is as simple or cheap as the one that’s been in place until now.
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One Response to On Resisting Cloud-y Transparency

  1. mwfogleman says:

    Hi Gary,

    Sorry to hear about your problems with Mavericks. Thanks for your brief account of the early thinking about computers. I’ll look into Markoff’s book. I just finished Neal Stephenson’s “In The Beginning Was the Command Line”, which you can read for free online in the helpful, if somewhat uneven, annotated “Command Line in 2004” edition (http://garote.bdmonkeys.net/commandline/index.html).

    MWF

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