The Consumer & The Cloud

Most of the ubiquitous computing we engage with in our everyday lives work in tandem with “the Cloud” – a seemingly abstract technology that some people are perplexed by. What exactly is the cloud? Unlike its illusory name, it is not a fluffy contraption in the sky beaming up all our data and then raining it back down on us when we need it. In de-blackboxed terms, cloud computing is simply storing and accessing data over the Internet, instead of on your specific device – your phone, laptop or smart TV.

The NIST definition of cloud computing consists of 5 characteristics, which help to further deblackbox the technology (Ruparelia, 2016). These characteristics consists of:

Cloud Computing Characteristics

  • Ubiquitous Access
  • On-Demand Availability based on the consumers self-service
  • Pooling of resources
  • Rapid Elasticity
  • Measured Service Usage

An example of cloud computing that consumers may be familiar with is evident in Apple’s iCloud, which is essentially a storage service. As of 2016, the service had 782 million users – an astronomical amount of data (Apple, 2019). Each iCloud account gets 5GB of storage for free, for email, documents, photos and backup data. For more data, such as if you were to have 10,000 photos on your iPhone, you pay a small monthly fee. Another popular example is Google drive, where one can access documents and media files remotely, free of the chains of traditional hardware based storage.

A cloud computing technology I was not familiar with however is Amazon Web Services. AWS is primarily a B2B service, happening beyond the reach of the end user and integral to the functionality of their services. AWS provides web-hosting services for a plethora of Fortune 500 companies. Despite the competitive war between Netflix and Amazon, I was surprised to learn that Netflix is in fact hosted on Amazon Web Services! The vast reach of AWS is further explored in this short clip from Patriot Act, Hasan Minhaj’s weekly stand up show which happens to be on Netflix:

The convergence of these technologies paves the way for a litany of potential social, cultural, ethical and of course technological implications. First, the benefits – there are several positive factors that cloud computing has brought into our lives. On a micro level, individuals such as employees can work remotely or students can now work collaboratively on the same document from multiple locations, increasing efficiency. Large companies can benefit from economies of scale, managing consumer accounts and media services in one platform. A potential privacy concern may emerge from this – who truly owns all this data? In the age of frequent privacy violations such as data breaches this raises large societal questions about data and privacy. Essentially, consumers choosing to use this technology may all be at the mercy of the oligopoly of the “big four”!