Cloudy with a Chance of Media

October 6, 2011
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Apple's New iCloud ServiceEditor’s Note: This post was written before news of Steve Jobs’ passing (sent from our iPhones).

Almost 10 years after launching the first (now seemingly brick-like) iPod, Apple has unveiled another version of the music player’s most successful descendant, the iPhone 4S. But while the tech press salivates over an even thinner, even speedier device on which to play Angry Birds, the more significant news at Tuesday’s press conference was the official launch of Apple’s iCloud service (available Oct. 12).

Cloud computing is all the rage in the tech and media industries right now, even though the term itself dates back to the 1960s. While the era of the personal computer fostered a reliance on our own gadgets for our computing needs, today’s current cloud services encourage us to shop pieces of our daily computing activities out to the servers of various tech companies.

Popular cloud–based e–mail programs (like Yahoo or Gmail) and other online document tools (like Google Docs or Dropbox) have crept into our online activities so gradually that most users barely realize much of their data are already in the cloud. A recent Pew Internet study shows over 69 percent of Americans have used some kind of cloud service, even though many of them were not aware of the term “cloud computing” or what it meant. In other words, it’s not that what Apple announced Tuesday was particularly new. But, as with the iPod and music, Apple’s foray into the cloud will be a significant step in mainstreaming the idea and the practice of cloud computing, particularly with respect to personal media like music and photos.

At the heart of the push towards cloud computing lies a powerful metaphor. Clouds, on bright summer days, are big white fluffy things that fill the sky. It’s no wonder the metaphor is popular. The cloud is an idealized portrait of what we expect from our information: it should be always there, wherever we are.  However, the cloud metaphor conceals as much as it reveals. One of the most critical distinctions of cloud computing is that software programs and data no longer necessarily reside on our personal machines. They exist out there, in the cloud. For the case of music, this raises obvious comparisons to radio, cable television, movie rentals, or other commodity arrangements that rely on broadcasting, subscription, or rental rather than outright ownership. So why should we be concerned?

Streaming, subscription, and other cloud services enter their users into service agreements that rent music out for a certain fee or under certain conditions. Compared to previous modes of accessing music, music in the cloud allows other entities remote control over a user’s library and makes music dependent on the service in question. While music has always relied on the technologies of its production, distribution and consumption, music in the cloud is a highly technologized vision of music. It is a specific snapshot of music as a cultural commodity, one that sees music as indelibly networked to certain providers and technologies.

Tom McCourt and Patrick Burkart (2006) argue the shift towards music in the cloud is part of a concerted effort towards organized technocratic control over digital music. They worry major record labels and technology companies are creating a “celestial jukebox” that will ultimately put “new and enduring constraints on music’s viability as a cultural practice protected from pure market functionality”. Music via the cloud becomes what Jonathan Zittrain (2008) calls “contingent”, where goods and devices “are rented rather than owned, and subject to instantaneous revisions” that are often beyond the control of consumers. Music in the cloud, in some ways, is a threat to music’s very status as a socio–cultural good.

There are also curatorial implications. Part of the appeal of a music collection, or any collection (at least from the point of view of a media scholar), are the traces the collector leaves behind as they make decisions about the nature of their library. Questions about what music to keep, what to get rid of, what to show off, what to hide, how much to keep, in what format, etc. all reveal something about the collector. Even in the case of music downloaded from file–sharing networks, users still need to invest time and effort into their collections, be it by tagging songs, organizing them within folders, etc. and this provides much of the source for the cultural ownership they feel over their libraries. In the cloud, many of these activities disappear, or the service provides them for users. Music collections are instant and pre–selected. They are not compiled and tended to over time. Users are either part of a service or not. Digital collections in the cloud are digital in the purest sense. They are a one or a zero, an on/off switch rather than an individually selected expression of one’s own personal relationship with music.

As in the past, Apple will carefully nudge users towards its vision of the future by reminding them of the past. From what we know of iCloud so far, songs, photos and other media will still reside on your computer or your device as well as in the cloud. This will permit (supposedly) seamless syncing across all your media devices, but you’ll still “own” a digital copy of the media you’re consuming. This may reduce contingency and may still afford a desired level of curatorial control over your collection, but whether or not we’re ready for this new kind of relationship with our media, well, that’s still a bit cloudy.


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