Nicholas Carr’s video, and his book, compel us to think about what computing will look like a few years hence when the slew of new online services from the likes of Adobe, Google, Microsoft and others will to a greater or lesser degree shape the way we create, store, disseminate and archive most of what we usually now have on our PC hard drives, USB sticks or mobile phones.
Even in Sri Lanka, the cloud is growing. Having bought Mobitel’s HSPA modem + connection, I can now work anywhere I Colombo and in many other places around the country with speeds that rival my wired SLT ADSL Business Connection.
WiFi in and around Colombo is growing (even if those who provide wifi access don’t exactly know they are doing it!). Wimax, though hyped, is the wrong technology to use in Colombo but may have an impact in rural areas where large swathes of land can be covered with less of the problems associated with Line of Sight in urban / built up areas.
Mobile phone coverage with GPRS Edge, from Dialog and Mobitel, already covers a great deal of land, with 3G service coverage growing apace.
A lot of this (wireless) connectivity would have been unimaginable a few years ago. What it means is that using PCs and mobile phones, the possibility of connecting to the web and Internet and more importantly, producing content that can be distributed via web media channels, is increasingly open for citizens outside of Colombo and the Western Province.
A few years ago I wrote Mediation from the palm of your hand: Forgining the next generation ODR systems that along with several other papers explored the potential offered for conflict resolution through the increasing footprint of wireless internet access and the growth of mobile devices.
I’m not entirely convinced however by Carr’s assertion that we will find less use for our local hard drives. Local hard drives will only disappear once I can transfer, at the same rate as I can today with my PC’s local storage, information to and from the internet. Broadband internet speeds today even in developed countries don’t even come close. As someone who works with digital media where average file sizes range in hundreds of megabytes, my hourly data transfer (upload + download) needs would outstrip any wired or wireless internet access that I have encountered and know about (that’s commercially available and affordable) in Sri Lanka.
The cloud, seen here as ubiquitous (and hopefully free or very cheap) internet and web access, will certainly complement my work. It already does. Today, for some of the work I do with large Word or PowerPoint docs, I just create an online collaboration space with www.box.net. All the org’s I work with are on Google Apps, which allows for easy exchange of documents amongst colleagues without having to email them around all the time (why the hell doesn’t Google Apps support PDFs?!) I use Flickr and YouTube in my work a lot, and it’s great that I can now access these services from my mobile phone or laptop in most places I go in Sri Lanka and even on the road, along with Gmail and my office mail on my mobile wherever I have a signal.
I’m primarily a web publisher – the stuff I throw up to the web requires high bandwidth to upload, lesser bandwidth to consume, little bandwidth to engage with via comments and emails. I’m still unable to really use services like Yahoo’s new video streaming service, or U.Stream, still unable to do, reliably, things like Skypecasts and still unable to do anything that Apple says I can do with iChat video and screen sharing on my Mac – because the sustained bandwidth I need, just ain’t there.
That’s the problem with Carr’s thesis.
He assumes that the growth in broadband access speeds, that underpins his vision reminiscent of Sun’s assertion that the network is the computer, will take place around the world at more or less the same pace and in the same manner. Even a cursory glance at broadband services in the US tells us that this is very far removed from reality (though I suspect things may be different in Nordic countries).
For us in Sri Lanka, the growth of hyped up wireless broadband access holds much promise, but it will take years to mature. That said, as a peacebuilder, I’m excited today by the potential such technologies hold to get communities and individuals that rarely participate in democratic debates and produce digital content of their own to enter into the world of the Internet and web we take for granted. From oral histories to digital diaries (an SMS a day with a photo telling the life of an IDP in a camp), from podcasts in the vernacular (e.g. VOR Radio) to citizen journalism (e.g. Vikalpa), from mobile phone videos uploaded from the field itself (e.g. Vikalpa Video) to text messages that inform and alert (e.g. JNW), the cloud holds tremendous potential for those of us interested in interrogating war and peace.
It is in fact a shift (a necessary and long over due one at that) from an emphasis on e-government (all too often seen as and constructed as a one way street that really doesn’t offer citizens the potential to communicate with Government) to e-governance – holding government and public bodies, including NGOs, accountable and transparent.
I think Carr will eventually be proved right – we will all end up storing more and more of our lives online. But until such time this is possible and prevalent, local storage will still be hugely important and will only continue to grow in size – as our own digital content creation grows exponentially.
Put the two together – higher density data storage on smaller media and higher speed connectivity over larger footprints, and you have the recipe for a communications architecture that can be leveraged for peacebuilding in any number of ways.