A Response to "The Final Upgrade" (PopSci October 2013)

7 September, 2013

I just read the short column in this month’s Popular Science about “The Final Upgrade,” supposedly our way out of phone and PC upgrades by way of smarter software. What I thought was going to be an insightful look into new load-minimizing techniques or ultra-efficient consumer software instead quickly degenerated into the trite “the cloud will save us all” argument.

Ioizzio argues that the end of hardware upgrades is upon us, because obviously we are offloading more and more processing demands onto the cloud. She made the comparison to 80s mainframes for me: modern hardware will be “thin client terminals” for use to log into some corporate mainframe. We will stream video games (remember the hype for OnLive?), use cloud document editors, etc. But further, we will log in via some VNC-style remote desktop to a complete computer-that-doesn’t-belong-to-us. If that’s the future, count me out.

First, the technical problems are not fixed. Americans severely lack the bandwidth necessary to stream videos satisfactorily, let alone send video game inputs up and bring graphics back down with sufficiently low latency to make a game feel good. It just isn’t the same as having a local powerhouse to serve those graphics over a single meter of copper. But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that we’re talking about some awesome fiber-to-the-home future, which seems imminent. We have tons of bandwidth, and we can stream and upload without hassle.

The main problem I have with Iozzio’s argument is that it is precisely a service as a software substitute (SaaSS). And, as the GNU foundation so thoroughly lays out, SaaSS erodes user freedom. The cloud-VNC future of non-hardware that Iozzio describes is one step beyond the current use of cloud storage and documents. It is a whole operating system on someone else’s computer! As legal teams around the world have already learned, users have no reasonable expectation of privacy when they use someone else’s computer. This astonishingly overlooked point means that, in the future the author envisions, users will never have an expectation of privacy. Ever. Period.

With our clearer knowledge of the espionage activities of the government, and even with our old-fashioned common sense, this vision of the future is unreasonable. It is unacceptable and irresponsible to make a technological prediction without considering legal and social implications.

So instead of this cloud-VNC nightmare, we should be hosting our own clouds, or keeping our data locally on our devices, and using better software that works on older hardware. Users must own the means of computation, or we’ll be right back where we started, with corporate-mandated policies on what is acceptable for people to do on their computers. Further, we’ll be begging the NSA to to take a close look at our whole computing stack, taking whatever they please. Let’s not go backward after so much progress towards user empowerment.