Thoughts on Mike Caulfield’s Vision of Storage Neutral Apps

Today Mike Caulfield proposed a different vision of cyberinfrastructure. It’s late enough that I may be missing something, but here’s what I think he’s saying,

At present you have two options for personal cyberinfrastructure —

1) Use big cloud providers (Google, Facebook, etc.)  Pay in data mining and lock in rather than money. Have little control over your presence

2) Get your own domain (or a VPS if you are truly brave) pay some money and lots of what Ryan Brazell called the web version of “sweat equity”.  Have as much control over your presence as your skill set allows, including content portability. This is essentially the premise from which Jim Groom et cie. are working with Domain of One’s Own at the University of Mary Washington.

Caulfield quotes Klint Finley to support the idea that most end users want data and software portability, but don’t care about the other control that being able to rewrite free software allows.  This leads Caulfield to a third way, which looks something like this:

You buy software, a VPS, and cloud storage, but not necessarily from the same provider. Everything is interoperable enough that you can change software, server provider, or storage provider easily.  All my payment is done via money, rather than sweat or data mining.

Caufield’s idea addresses the most common criticism of the personal cyberinfrastructure movement, that nobody wants to mess with the inner workings of their website, not even in cpanel. I find it very discouraging that Mike may be right, especially as someone who works in higher ed.

James Burke pointed out more than thirty years ago in Connections that modern society allows us to go through our lives without knowing how much of anything really works, One of the things all education wrestles with is how much of the inner workings of various things (chemistry, music, economics, etc.) a broadly educated person “needs to know”.

We have in so many areas of life already given up knowledge and control so that a scenario like E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” is now quite plausible. For much of it’s earliest history, the Internet pushed back, in the 90’s building a web presence meant knowing HTML and maybe even having to brave the CLI. It was a place where you could learn to be hands on, even as your cars and appliances became too complex to be fixed by non-experts.  Now the pendulum seems to be swinging again,   The success of Blogger,, and, yes, Facebook supports Mike’s contention that people want a less hands on solution.  However,  I believe that the Internet is a fundamental “System of the World” to paraphrase Newton, and that it is among the things of which an “educated person” should have some understanding.

I think this could be done by replacing the desktop applications class that constitutes many students’ formal learning about computers with a “technology and society” sort of course that would could cover everything from the Internet and its issues to  GMO food and personal fabrication/3D printing,  Recent attempts at technology law and policy (remember SOPA/PIPA?) show us that those responsible for policy (including voters) desperately need a better understanding of how, at least conceptually, it all works.Domain of One’s Own tries to do that.  I’m not sure Mike’s solution is up to that challenge, even though it’s quite a step forward from what most people use in terms of portability and privacy..

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