May 5, 2011 Economy
Part of the global push towards the privatization of the “general intellect” is the recent trend in the organization of cyberspace towards so-called “cloud computing.” Little more than a decade ago, a computer was a big box on one’s desk, and downloading was done with floppy disks and USB sticks. Today, we no longer need such cumbersome individual computers, since cloud computing is Internet-based, i.e., software and information are provided to computers or smartphones on demand, in the guise of web-based tools or applications that users can access and use through browsers as if they were programs installed on their own computer. In this way, we can access information from wherever we are in the world, on any computer, with smartphones literally putting this access into our pocket.
We already participate in cloud computing when we run searches and get millions of results in a fraction of a second — the search process is performed by thousands of connected computers sharing resources in the cloud. Similarly, Google Books makes millions of digitized works available any time, anywhere around the world. Not to mention the new level of socialization opened up by smartphones: today a smartphone will typically include a more powerful processor than that of the standard big box PC of only a couple of years ago. Plus it is connected to the Internet, so that I can not only access multiple programs and immense amounts of data, but also instantly exchange voice messages or video clips, and coordinate collective decisions, etc.
This wonderful new world, however, represents only one side of the story, which as a whole reads like the well-known doctor joke: “first the good news, then the bad news.” Users today access programs and software maintained far away in climate-controlled rooms housing thousands of computers. To quote from a propaganda-text on cloud computing: “Details are abstracted from consumers, who no longer have need for expertise in, or control over, the technology infrastructure ‘in the cloud’ that supports them.”
There are two tell-tale words here: abstraction and control. In order to manage a cloud, there needs to be a monitoring system which controls its functioning, a system which is by definition hidden from the end-user. The paradox is thus that, as the new gadget (smartphone or tiny portable) I hold in my hand becomes increasingly personalized, easy to use, “transparent” in its functioning, the more the entire set-up has to rely on the work being done elsewhere, on the vast circuit of machines which coordinate the user’s experience. In other words, for the user experience to become more personalized or non-alienated, it has to be regulated and controlled by an alienated network.
This, of course, holds for any complex technology: a TV viewer typically will have no idea how his remote control works, for example. However, the additional twist here is that it is not just the core technology, but also the choice and accessibility of content which are now controlled. That is to say, the formation of “clouds” is accompanied by a process of vertical integration: a single company or corporation will increasingly have a stake at all levels of the cyberworld, from individual machines (PCs, iPhones, etc.) and the “cloud” hardware for program and data storage, to software in all its forms (audio, video, etc.).
Everything thus becomes accessible, but only as mediated through a company which owns it all — software and hardware, content and computers. To take one obvious example, Apple doesn’t only sell iPhones and iPads, it also owns iTunes. It also recently made a deal with Rupert Murdoch allowing the news on the Apple cloud to be supplied by Murdoch’s media empire. To put it simply, Steve Jobs is no better than Bill Gates: whether it be Apple or Microsoft, global access is increasingly grounded in the virtually monopolistic privatization of the cloud which provides this access. The more an individual user is given access to universal public space, the more that space is privatized.
Apologists present cloud computing as the next logical step in the “natural evolution” of the Internet, and while in an abstract-technological way this is true, there is nothing “natural” in the progressive privatization of global cyberspace. There is nothing “natural” in the fact that two or three companies in a quasi-monopolistic position can not only set prices at will but also filter the software they provide to give its “universality” a particular twist depending on commercial and ideological interests.
True, cloud computing offers individual users an unprecedented wealth of choice — but is this freedom of choice not sustained by the initial choice of a provider, in respect to which we have less and less freedom? Partisans of openness like to criticize China for its attempt to control internet access — but are we not all becoming involved in something comparable, insofar as our “cloud” functions in a way not dissimilar to the Chinese state?
Slavoj Žižek is a professor at the European Graduate School, international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities of Birkbeck College of the University of London, and a senior researcher at the Institute of Sociology of the University of Ljubljana, in Slovenia. This essay is adapted from his new afterword for the paperback edition of Žižek’s Living in the End Times (Verso).