Thursday, September 29, 2011

Clearing the Clouds

Now that we have scanners and email, you no longer have to keep documents in physical form. Cloud computing promises the next step in this progression: you no longer have to store your own digital documents. But, as with any area of your life that you turn over to a faceless, anonymous business operation, there are privacy and security issues. Alexis Madrigal wrote last week about “The Cloud’s My-Mom-Cleaned-My-Room Problem”:

We’ve always been dependent on software providers to create the digital spaces we inhabit, but when your email and documents and music are in the cloud, you’re giving up the lock on the door and allowing changes to be made on the schedule of the parent. He or she may clean up or buy you a new desk. He or she may take away the car or decide you can’t do something you think you should be able to.

Of course, there are other problems too. Among many others, there is the problem that having your life in other people’s hands makes it all too easy for them to find out your tendencies and use those tendencies to manipulate you, as I wrote in May.

If cloud computing creates the digital equivalent of mom cleaning your room, and if it puts you at the mercy of hidden forces that see you as a resource to be exploited, that just means that cloud computing is not as inexpensive as it appears on the surface. Given the risks involved, you will still likely make some use of cloud computing, but you will want to be careful not to be using it frivolously.

In a nutshell, that means putting documents in the cloud when there is a reason to, and removing them when there is no longer a reason to have them there. It is the second part that is sometimes counterintuitive. Cloud services make it the easiest thing in the world to keep everything indefinitely. That’s a boon for published documents, like this blog, but eventually becomes a problem for almost anything else. Almost everything — photos, manuscripts, spreadsheets, playlists, notes, messages, wish lists — should eventually be deleted, or at least removed from the cloud. Some things, because they are more sensitive, should be deleted faster. If you realize you have a wish list online that you had forgotten about for a couple of years, delete it right now before someone innocently gives you something they selected from the list. For any document or message, though, the ideal time to delete is at least some time before you have completely forgotten what it was about.

I know, it’s not like any of us needs another chore, and clearing the clouds is just that, a chore. But the ease of ownership that cloud computing offers doesn’t take away the responsibilities that go with owning something. It should become an every-few-weeks habit to check some part of what you have online and delete the things you find that no longer belong there.