THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
James Carroll

Collective heads in the Cloud

By James Carroll
April 18, 2011

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HERE COMES the Cloud — the next stage in computer-driven human transformation. Cloud computing refers to the shift of data storage and management from the personal computer to remote servers and networks, with individual users needing little more than a screen and minimally powered terminal. The days of the personal computer are numbered, as the heavy hardware of information technology disappears from most people’s lives, to be replaced by — well, it’s not exactly clear, since a cloud, by definition, consists of obscuring mist. In effect, the virtual is going virtual, a next-level distancing that is nevertheless profoundly actual. Universities, hospitals, businesses, and government are already moving into cloud engineering, with attendant if unannounced changes in teaching, medical practice, marketing, and the citizen’s relationship to power. We are all moving into this uncharted zone, whether we want to or not.

Benefits will surely flow from this shift, especially in cost, efficiency, and the democratic openness of information. But perhaps the Cloud represents, also, one of those reflection points, an occasion for trying again to understand how our machines are changing us. The Net has already accomplished nothing less than a massive cultural mutation, yet now even it is apparently to be superseded by the higher-performance networking of consortia like so-called Internet2, with e-commons, e-science, cyber-infrastructure, and the hyper-connectivity of “middleware’’ — the ultimate “app.’’ E-learning is recasting the classroom, distance research the university, digitization the library, so-called tele-presence the conference room, and ubiquitous connectivity the distinction between work and life. Human interactions are routinely filtered through a new reality which is invisible, global, and beyond the control of any user. The approaching loss of what’s called the personal computer may be a warning, since impersonality (of learning, knowing, thinking, relating) is what threatens. Humans are becoming unwilling subjects of a meta-world that exists everywhere and nowhere. The Cloud.

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? In fact, this is an old question. As the Harvard scholar Mark U. Edwards Jr. helps me remember, thinkers and dreamers have long imagined the evolution of minds into Mind. Emil Durkheim wrote of “collective consciousness,’’ H.G. Wells of a “world brain,’’ Pierre Teilhard de Chardin of the “noosphere,’’ humanity’s leap out of the biosphere into a realm of pure cognition. Science-fiction writers were first connoisseurs of what might be called technological spirituality, with, say, super-machines morphing into sentient beings. Think HAL.

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 Cloud is one of those metaphors, but it carries implications of its own. Clouds were an early image of Heaven, the idealized afterlife where humans come into their reward. One problem with the image is the way in which the insubstantial and immaterial cloud stands in contrast to the gritty earth, as if the destiny of humans is to be freed from the bondage of the body. Contempt for human corporeality is a mistake of the heavenly minded, and it shows up in the hi-tech denigration of the physical brain as a “meat computer.’’ The wish to transcend the flesh, whether in the religious glorification of angels or in an IT elevation of disembodied intelligence, is inhuman.

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.

James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.