My Very Own Cloud

“She filled up her entire cloud with pictures and videos,” my mom said. I liked that. My mom took the cloud — that shapeless storyless constellation of particular data which exists everywhere and nowhere, the cloud to which we entrust our photographs and diaries and minutiae and in an increasingly odd way our memory — and gave it to one woman who probably has far too many digital photographs of her nieces and nephews.
That woman filled up her cloud.

“I like to sort of picture it that way,” my mom told me, “Everyone has their own cloud and it’s floating around out there.”

The picture my mom has is intuitive from the perspective of the user: my Gmail address or my Dropbox account is mine, and whatever I put in my little cloud bucket floats up into the sky and follows me around wherever I go. Yet the underlying structure is exactly the opposite: it’s a movement away from personal ownership of data. My data are stored all over the world, so I can access them them wherever I go. So it isn’t that my little cloud follows me around, it’s that things are cloudy no matter where I am.

And here’s what my mom said next: “I don’t really think she needs eight thousand photos of her nephew or her dog with her at all times.” And I think that’s right. But if I think it’s right, why do I have all of my files synched so I can get to them at any time? I’ve never showed anyone a photograph of mine by reaching up to the sky and pulling it down from the cloud.

And what’s more disappointing is that I have never looked at most of the photos I’ve taken. I have 3.2 GB of high resolution photos from a semester I spent traveling around Europe; each city has a folder with dozens of photos and each of those photos is iterated on servers all across the world. I haven’t seen most of them. There’s something about the ease and scale of producing modern, digital memories that makes them almost worthless.

How much shit is in the cloud?

The sheer amount of information available to us: 800,000 petabytes (a million gigabytes per petabyte) in the storage universe and 3.6 zettabytes (a million petabytes per zettabyte) consumed by American homes per day. (Brain Pickings)

And there’s the 12,000 tweets per second during the Super Bowl , the 800 million Facebook accounts, and the 736 pieces of personal information the average internet user gives out every day.

The volume of information available on the internet is unbelievable. (Especially if you’re searching for porn. Is there kissing in porn?) We share frequently while connecting with other people – words made vapid and meaningless through explicit association with an insignificant click: what it means to be friends is that we have clicked accept and what it means to share is that we have clicked update.

But friendship isn’t binary, and existence isn’t incremental.

We’ve all heard it before. We hate Facebook, but what the hell are we going to do? This is how we connect now. This is how we share. It’s convenient.

My fear is that we shape ourselves to be fit for sharing – and overwrought status updates for an audience of hundreds aren’t suited to who we are. Zadie Smith says it better than anyone:

Shouldn’t we struggle against Facebook? Everything in it is reduced to the size of its founder. Blue, because it turns out Zuckerberg is red-green color-blind. “Blue is the richest color for me—I can see all of blue.” Poking, because that’s what shy boys do to girls they are scared to talk to. Preoccupied with personal trivia, because Mark Zuckerberg thinks the exchange of personal trivia is what “friendship” is. A Mark Zuckerberg Production indeed! We were going to live online. It was going to be extraordinary. Yet what kind of living is this? Step back from your Facebook Wall for a moment: Doesn’t it, suddenly, look a little ridiculous? Your life in this format?

Facebook is the most perverse implementation of that teenage complex that everyone is watching me – perverse because, although it gives the illusion that everyone is paying attention as they scroll their eyes across our thoughts, the result is indeed the same as it always was: very few people care about me quite as much as I do.

And I fear the way I’m looking at other people, too. In what sense are my friends a lot like my photos from Europe? I know how many friends I have, I know some basic trivia about their hobbies and hangouts, I know if they are in a relationship. But I know that the me on Facebook is nothing but a carefully curated sketch. (I think, for instance, of the times when Lily and I fight and my relationship status still says “in a relationship,” reflecting precisely none of that nuance; or my profile picture of me writing in a notebook that I guess I thought would say oh he’s a writer but which says nothing about the mornings I’ve spent angry because I have a novel but I’m not writing it and I’ve lied and told people I’ve already written quite a bit) And my Facebook friends are nothing but their outlines. But how many do I know? Very few.

Maybe the ease of digital friendship spoils the attention to quality just like the digital camera eliminated the concern for consequence. There is no more last shot on the roll, better make it count. Just click, click, click.