Head in a cloud

27 May 2011 | Articles, Non-fiction

Thinking, reading, writing, buying… Teemu Manninen explores the new freedoms, literal and poetic, offered by cloud computing, where what you can do is no longer limited by what you happen to have on your computer

High in the sky: cumulus clouds. Photo: Michael Jastremski, Wikimedia

I’m sitting in a rocking chair on the porch of a cottage by a lake. My fingers tap and slide on the surface of a black glass panel, a kind of instrument used in the composing of literature. Each tap equals a letter, a series of taps equals a word, a symphony of taps becomes a paragraph, a paragraph an essay.

The glass panel remembers these letters and words and the writings they become, and knows them by their names, but it could also record anything I see or hear. I could even talk to it and it would understand my commands, as if some nether spirit were captured inside, a magic genie slaved to do my bidding.

If I command the spirit, it can send all that I have written into the sky, into the clouds where it lives; the heavens where the gods used to live. Now the cloud is occupied by another space altogether, a kind of information-aether existing everywhere around us. In this information-space my words will organise themselves into a file in a kind of imaginary drawer, or a lockbox that I have rented from these benevolent spiritual forces in order to store these other-dimensional ditherings for later perusal.

At some point in the future I will use a larger glass window into which I will stare like an enchanter into a scrying glass, and the window will open a portal into that other world, and I will there open the same lockbox and take out the file I have written in a cottage by a lake. This time I will be at home, writing this sentence in order to convey to you the sense of wonder I sometimes feel when tapping on my black glass panel like some techno-witch in a sci-fi tale.

What I have been describing is of course what is called, in a fitting poetic gesture, cloud computing. Cloud computing simply means that all the things we do, all the things we create on our computers, the files and documents and images and whatnot do not have to exist physically ‘in’ your computer. They will exist somewhere else, and you will access them through the internet. All that word processing, all those spread sheets and email and calendars, manuscripts and drafts, none of them will exist anywhere near where you are working on them, but in another computer perhaps thousands of miles away. To me this signals a profound change in the material nature of writing and reading that no one seems to be talking about.

The unaddressed nature of cloud computing and its impact on the future of the book might be due to the fact that most discussion has been centred around the way new technology will change the economy and the institutions of publishing. We don’t really hear actual readers and writers talk about the impact these new technologies have had on their life. So, I’m now asking: is this gift the cloud-gods have given us a blessing or a curse?

First, from the point of view of my reading habits, the change from a physical library to a cloud library has been mostly wonderful, yet somewhat frustrating, because the change has not proceeded fast enough. Last year I’ve read more books on my ‘smartphone’ than on paper. It’s almost too easy to buy books online, as it may take less than a minute for them to arrive. I would read even more, but what I tend to read is often unavailable in ebook form (for example, niche authors of obscure fantasy – Michael Cisco, Abram Tertz, David Ohle and Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky). This has made me impatient in a rather comically paradoxical way: ‘I can’t wait for them to mail me the book’, I think to myself, ‘and it’s more expensive anyway’ – so I end up not getting the book at all, because I would much rather wait wait for the digital version. Sadly, sometimes this wait might take forever, if copyright law stays the way it is.

My impatience also has other adverse effects. Because the books I want are not available, it’s too easy to read bad books that are. You can get mediocre space adventures or romance novels for five euros: the literary equivalent of fast food. Bingeing on such cheap fare, I haven’t even thought of the most worrying aspects of cloud libraries: the possibility of losing all my ebooks. My phone might break down, or the files might become corrupted, or the network might be hacked, and I couldn’t peruse any of the 25 books I’m currently reading. But still, I can take my books everywhere and read them any time I want –  with paper books you have to choose what, where and when to read.

If my reading has been enhanced, the best thing about this new paradigm has been the new writing tools it has given me. For me, one of the main concerns has always been the management of my incredibly bad memory and the inappropriate times when inspiration occurs. I need to write a good idea down right away, or I’ll forget it. Since new ideas tend to strike when nowhere near my office or my home, like on a train, in a hotel room, in a cafe or shopping, I’ve always hated laptops because they are just so unwieldy. Mine is small but still too large, the battery doesn’t last, and it’s impossible to take it out of your pocket just to write down one sentence. And while it’s possible to go to a cafe or a library to work and wait for those good ideas to come to me, I’m not able to decide when this serendipity happens.

Shouldn’t I be using good old paper notebooks, then? Sure, but my best ideas never come to me when I put my pen on paper. Somehow they just dissipate in ink. There’s something in the physicality of the act that chafes me, restricts the free flow of fast association, the connections between ideas that I need to see happening on the page quickly in order to fully understand. It’s also impossible to ‘edit’ notebooks efficiently. I see the forms of ideas and the connections between them as kinetic movements, and editing text on the computer lets me juxtapose things very fast. My notebooks look awful, are sometimes totally incomprehensible, and therefore defeat their purpose.

A smartphone, on the other hand, is a marvellous notebook. Some programmes have enormous potential: some of them are able to organise notes, chapter outlines, character backstories and so on by colour coding or a system resembling index cards. For me the most useful feature has been the ability to seamlessly edit and write new material anywhere and on any computer through a browser or a programme on my phone. I usually work in stages of drafts from notes and ideas, which are stored in various documents, proceed to more complete drafts on a word processor, then towards edited and revised drafts. If I am working on a literary book, prose or poetry, I have to see the final drafts in pdf format – like the final pages of a book. Being able to reach all these stages from anywhere and edit them anywhere has been a real blessing.

Most of my reading and all of my work now resides in the digital cloud. I won’t really miss the paper book, and I definitely won’t miss writing by longhand. It feels so wonderful that I don’t actually understand why people aren’t going around public places exclaiming in hyperboles about it like demented evangelists. It’s as if my ideas were existing in the air around me, not locked away in some notebook or a weathered old dustjacket, somewhere I can’t reach when I need to.

Like some constellation in the sky, my thoughts now move across the firmament, from where the influence and the inspiration of the gods descends upon us.

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