Michael Stephens has a great post describing his Ten Trends & Technologies for 2009, and normally I wouldn’t even point to it because it’s getting a lot of link love elsewhere. If by some miracle you haven’t seen it yet, go read the whole thing, but I want to expand on one particular piece, cloud computing, because librarians need to also discuss the flip side of the benefits that Michael describes. As he notes, Michael isn’t the first librarian to talk about cloud computing, but I haven’t seen as much discussion of the potential consequences of it, especially during the transition we’re in right now where we can’t totally trust the cloud.
Here’s the part of Michael’s post that jumped out at me.
“As regular folks store more data and rely more and more on the cloud, librarians would be well-served to spend some time pondering what this means for services and access. As movies and music become downloads from the great jukebox in the sky, what happens to the AV department? As documents and data find their way to the ether, how can we provide a means to use them? Some implications from the “Cloud” post:
* Understand converged devices are everywhere.
* Allow unfettered access to the cloud.
* Understand that the cloud may also be a valuable information resource.
* Utilize the cloud to save time and money.
That last one is important to me. Why can’t we use Google Docs with our users for productivity instead of paying for bloated software suites? Why can’t we show our users how to save to the cloud so they can access their stuff from anywhere?”
I agree with Michael’s points, but I think we have a critical role in helping users with those third and fourth implications. One of the keys to cloud computing right now is synchronization. Very few people I know completely trust their data to the cloud, and they have backups at home or they synchronize across multiple devices so that if one service fails, they haven’t lost everything.
The problem with this approach at this stage is that early adopters know how to do this, but that’s a pretty small percentage of the population. So while we can definitely work with patrons using Google Docs, I think the more important role for libraries right now is to teach users about these types of services, in no small part so that we can help them understand the potential consequences. Because if you teach a patron to use an online documents site and she puts her resume there and something goes wrong with it, that’s a very real data loss for that person.
So we need to teach people a few different things, besides just how to use these tools.
- There are multiple options
I worry when I see librarians promoting only Google Docs. I know Michael was using it as just one example, but I’ve seen others sing its praises with no mention that anything else even exists. Sure it’s easy to use and it works really well, but would you feel comfortable promoting only Microsoft Office Live Docs to your patrons? Most librarians I know would be uncomfortable about doing that, because they see Microsoft as being a monopoly interested only its bottom line, but Google isn’t fundamentally different. They’re actually selling ads with their services, and their ultimate motivation is revenue — never forget that.
- How to synchronize or backup those files
Although this will change over the next few years, a very small percentage of the population has a smartphone, and even fewer actually use it to synchronize content to the cloud. A lot of people know about and use flash drives now that prices on them have dropped and storage size has gone up, but I’ve met enough folks who think putting something on the internet means it’s permanent that I strongly believe we need to help teach our users this isn’t true. So if we teach how to use cloud tools, we need to teach that there can also be consequences.
Last year I had a discussion with Eli Neiburger during which he made the interesting point that kids today experience their first data loss at a much younger age than we ever did. That really made me stop and think for a minute about just how much we aren’t teaching our children about technology, and this is an area where we can help both kids and adults, if we recognize this and incorporate it into our media fluency role.
- How to think about privacy in this context
What does it mean to put your resume on Google Docs? I’m not sure we’ve really thought through that question. If you use Gmail (so Google is serving up ads based on your messages), the Google search engine (so the big G knows what you’re searching and is showing you ads based on that), your calendar is in gCal, and you use gTalk (just to name a few Google services), that means Google has assembled a pretty good picture of you. How comfortable would you be if all of that data resided with Microsoft? Yahoo? The government? Your ISP? Your employer? A company like Fox that’s owned by Rupert Murdoch?
This is important stuff, because these companies change their policies at the drop of a hat, and users have no say. For example, if you’re an iTunes customer who paid to upgrade your DRM-restricted music to “unrestricted” MP3s last week, this week we found out that those “unrestricted” and “open” files from Apple contain personal information about you. You can now be easily identified by that file, so if it lives in the cloud and something happens to it (like someone steals a copy and puts it on the open web), are you liable for that copyright violation? Granted, the chances of that happening are pretty slim, but how many users are even thinking about this? What does it mean to have personally-identifiable information embedded in data files and living in the cloud? We tend to think this stuff is just secure out there and that these kinds of things won’t happen to us, but it’s only hindsight that is 20/20. What if other companies started embedding personal information about you in files — what would your recourse be? And when it’s a free service, you don’t have a contract or service agreement to fall back on when problems arise.
I don’t consider myself a conspiracy theorist or even particularly paranoid, but this is one reason I don’t use Gmail very much. If you’re reading this, you likely already know all of this is an issue, and you have the capacity to make that decision for yourself. But a large percentage of your users probably don’t.
Teaching critical skills about the cloud will become just as essential as teaching how to evaluate a website, even more so as products continue the march to becoming services. The ease and convenience of accessing this stuff via any computer, including a cellphone, is pushing people to do things they would never do in the “physical” world. Imagine trusting someone you don’t know knocking on your door and saying they’ll take good care of your private data and access to your computer. “Trust me.” Seriously?
I take advantage of some of these services, too, so I’m just as guilty, but I’ve become far less trusting of synchronizing whole folders to the cloud, and I’m more careful about what lives there. I’ll probably start password-protecting more files, too. It’s not a perfect solution, but I’m starting to think more about this stuff and wonder how I can install my own synchronization service, rather than relying on a third party. I’m in the minority, though, and it’s time we recognize as a profession that when we identify these types of trends, it’s not just for our own benefit. We should see this for what it is — an expansion of our traditional role to teach people how to use information well, and we should lead, not just with good models, but with help understanding and dealing with the ramifications of all of this.