Newsletter - sign up here
Search Webster
Webster's pieces from The Oldie
Webster's Webwatch

Modern life - What is the Cloud?

May 2016

You’ve heard “The Cloud” mentioned, I suspect, and you may have grasped that it is something to do with the internet, and so perhaps allowed your attention to wander.  You probably should know about it, however, because it almost certainly knows about you. 

So what is this mysterious cloud that hangs, unexplained, over us? And what is in it: heavy snow or silver lining?

“The Cloud” is not physical; since the dawn of the internet it has been a metaphor for the ever growing network of computers (“data centres”) owned by businesses of all sizes, in most countries, that rent out computing power. Most of the biggest such centres are run by little-known specialist companies; their clients are the names you do know, who have decided not to own their own facilities.

If we store a picture or a document “in the cloud” it simply means that we are transferring it to a third party to look after it for us, just as we might store furniture at Pickfords.

There has also been huge growth in computing services “”in the Cloud”.  These are programmes that live on distant computers that we can operate remotely, through the internet, from anywhere.

One such is the BBC iPlayer; the really clever technical stuff is all taking place in the BBC computer, not ours.  It’s the same when you submit your Tax Return online or use services such as Gmail, Yahoo, Facebook or Twitter; your computer is only providing a window through which you can see and control what’s going on at the other end.  I do my accounts that way, when I can remember the password.

This all sounds fairly benign. The first rule of computing is that what can go wrong will go wrong, with its corollary that all hard drives fail sooner or later, so we should all make copies of everything on our computer that we can’t afford to lose. Saving them in a Cloud based service is easy and sometimes free; using remote computing services means that others are responsible for keeping them going; one less thing to worry about. 

So far so good; the trouble is, computer designers have a fatal flaw: if it’s possible and legal for them to gather information, any information, that’s what they’ll do.  They can’t resist it, poor things, they are compulsive hoarders. 

So they harvest everything they can from your computer and pump it up into the Cloud. 

They’ll tell you it’s all encrypted, anonymous and safe, of course, and you may welcome the fact that all your pictures are being copied safely to a Cloud based service of one sort or another, but the fact remains that there is an ever increasing archive about you building up in the Cloud.

If that’s not intrusive enough for you, your movements can and are tracked from your phone, and if it’s an Android phone (most are) Google can even show you a map of where you have been (  Apple do it too, and it’s all stored in the Cloud.

Oh, to be sure, you will have given permission at some point, even if you didn’t notice; perhaps when setting up your email. 

This might be very useful one day if you need an alibi to satisfy Hercule Poirot, or to remember where you parked your car, but not if you are making covert visits to Wimbledon when you should be at work.

The Cloud may be, to borrow a phrase, no bigger than a man’s hand at the moment, but it’s growing; one of Google’s founders says that the amount of data we record every two days is equal to all of the data that was recorded from the beginning of time to 2003.  I worry that one day the earth will be carpeted in massive energy consuming computer centres, pointlessly storing information that nobody will ever need. 

That’s the cloud that’s looming over us.