When the Cloud feels creepy

By Adam Tinworth

23/07/2012 | Yesterday, my Google Nexus 7 tablet creeped me out. I'd spent the day furniture shopping with my wife, fixed some dinner, and then headed up to the study to catch up on a few things. And there, on the screen of the tablet were directions for a journey I'd take a few hours ago. A journey I'd made without the tablet, and which I'd made the decision to make while I was five miles away from it.

It took me a few minutes to figure out how it know - I'd searched for my destination using Google on my iPhone, and thus Google Now was able to grab the information from my Google account. The device was trying to be helpful, even though I was miles away from it. But it was still an odd, unsettling experience. How did this object know what I was doing, and where I was going, when it was sat on my desk at home? It felt like it was spying on me - even though I myself had given it the information; I just hadn't realised I was doing it.

We're in the process of moving from an explicit information sharing model - "send this information to this device" - to an implicit one, where, once I grant permission, my activities on one device are automatically shared with another, for my benefit. It's efficient, it's helpful, but right now it's a bit creepy.

The problem is that we have a fundamental mental disconnect right now. The Nexus 7 is a physical front end to data that lives, on the whole, in the cloud. My information isn't on the device, it's on Google's servers. The Nexus 7 is just a way of interacting with that digital me that lives elsewhere, as is my iPhone. Once you wrap your head around that, it makes perfect sense that a device miles away from you might know what you're doing - and try to help. But our experience of the world, for of the physical environment rather than the digital one, teaches us that information tends to live in one place. There is a mental recalibration needed here, one that might take time for many of us to make.

The fact that so much cloud activity happens invisibly and in the background, and is never noticed by us, probably doesn't help matters. Apple themselves are running into this problem - users don't know they're using Apple's cloud services. They have an increasing number of users starting to bash up against the 5Gb limit for the free version of iCloud. Users are getting e-mail notifications that they need to free up space or pay for more - and they've no idea what iCloud is. Apple has almost been too successful - they've created a service which runs invisibly in the background, but so invisibly that users never give it a single thought after the accept its use when they set up their phone or iPad.

If that's their aim - they've misjudged the level of storage the average user needs to stop them hitting the free category. It's pretty easy to do with both an iPad and iPhone in use, and I doubt the additional storage revenue is a big element in Apple's profits….

There are other consequences, too. We're probably paying for more storage on our devices than we actually need, because everything can be pulled down from the cloud quickly.

We're in the early stages of the move from predominantly local storage to predominantly cloud storage. This shift will take time, and will force us to reassess our concepts of ownership and possession. And, for a little while, we might have to get used to feeling creeped out a little…

2 Comments

| offensive

Or you could reconsider about whether you really want to overcome the feeling. How about retaking control of your data? How about not using Google Now, but instead using something like Firefox Sync (where the cloud data is completely encrypted so that not even Mozilla can read it, and you also have the freedom to switch to another sync storage partner than Mozilla – would Google let you store the personal data they collect with other providers than Google?).

| Adam Tinworth

I'd rather have more control over my data than these services offer right now, sure. But I'd also like the utility. I hope that services with the same utility and more control will rise over time, but I realise that it's not guaranteed.