The theology of iCloud

We’re now in the calm, cozy eye of the iCloud storm. The anticipation and speculation period was followed by the day of the announcement and the Getting of the Facts, which was followed by the analysis of the announcement and the grinding but not-at-all necessary process of converting one’s initial enthusiasm into an endless list of reasons to be deeply concerned about the future of our great Republic.

Each of these things is stressful. The next step after this is the most stressful yet: it’s the bit when iOS 5 actually ships and we get our first chance to see how iCloud might destroy our day-to-day lives for real, instead of just hypothetically.

But as I say, at the moment the skies are blue and the winds are still. It’s a brief bit of time in which we should stroll the yard, tracing bursts of confused clucking and mooing to animals that have been halfway-embedded in trees, and effect a humanitarian rescue, and think about the larger issues while we await the possible end of the world.

Technology, when done ambitiously, is a form of art and as with painting, it’s always interesting to see how three different artists have approached the same subject. All art is autobiographical in nature, or so I heard in between naps during my Art History classes. It’s hard for me not to look at iCloud and the other new cloud services offered by Google and Amazon and think of them as emblematic of the companies’ views on the world.

What I find most remarkable about iCloud is that (unless there’s a lot more that Apple hasn’t shown us yet) it’s not a destination: it’s a highway system. Yes, technically my iCloud contains loads of information and files, but that fact chiefly articulates itself when I pick up my iPad, launch Pages, and resume work on an article right from the point I left it on my MacBook earlier in the day. We understood iDisk (and even Dropbox) as a directory on a remote server that we could attach to our local file system and use for storage. Despite Apple’s positioning of iCloud as a Huge Thing, we’re not meant to even think of iDisk at all. We’re meant to just have our data where we need it, when we need it. iCloud is the reason why when I got back to my hotel room I found that my bed had been turned down and there was a bottle of Coke already on ice. It’s not the phone call I make to a hotel service to make those things happen.

Some clouds have chrome linings

Google’s attitude is 180 degrees away from Apple’s. The same week that Apple announced iCloud, the first wave of ChromeBooks started to ship. These are the machines that exist solely as host organisms for the Chrome browser. They can do very little except connect to Google and run apps on their servers, usually with data that’s hosted by Google somewhere. They’ve also introduced Google Music, which will let me sync my music library between my Android devices… provided that I upload all 13,000 tracks to Google’s servers first.

Apple tipped its hat early by releasing iPhone and iPod Touch-compatible editions of its iOS iWork apps. Even without iCloud, it was a clear statement that Apple and Google are opposing forces destined to die with their hands wrapped around each other’s throats, like Popeye and Bluto or Lou Reed and Jimmy Buffett. Apple was clearly stating a belief that productivity apps belong on devices, with a network connecting these apps seamlessly. That’s diametrically opposed to Google’s app philosophy. Yes, using Google Docs’ web-based user interface is about as much fun as spending your last minutes of life in a disabled submarine that’s slowly sinking closer and closer to its crush depth…

(I’m being kind; I count three independent menu bars.)

…But when you host everything on the server, including apps, the user is left solely with the responsibility of launching the browser. And with a ChromeBook, it’s not even as complicated as that.

The third cloud company in this pageant is Amazon. Amazon is the friendly neighbor who will always lend you his electric weed trimmer. You would never consider that your using his weed trimmer is coincidentally compatible with his own goals (that’s Apple) or that he’s actually manipulating you into using this weed trimmer as a ploy to broaden his opportunities to exploit you later on (yes, that’s Google; well-spotted).

Amazon isn’t as simple-minded as that. It realizes that Amazon Cloud Player makes its MP3 store more valuable. But largely, Amazon’s server storage is like the power tool that it owns and often goes unused. If its customers are buying things from the store, why not give them a free Cloud Drive to put them in? Though it’s perfectly fine with them if you never ask to use it.

Yes, it’s a clumsy analogy, but I’ll go ahead and say that Amazon is Ned Flanders… only without the mustache and all the God stuff.

The three faces of cloud

In a sense, these three companies’ cloud services do represent three different concepts of God. Google is an Old Testament, theist-style cloud all the way: He through whom all blessings and punishments come, who must be praised and supplicated; without the Cloud, you are nothing and have nothing. iCloud represents more of a Deist ideal. The Cloud exists, but its presence is more to be felt than seen; if it does its job right, iCloud will instill great doubt that it even exists, or that it takes any notice of us at all.

Amazon is a form of agnosticism. You don’t know if you really believe in it or not, but you do know that on the third weekend of every month this pointy building near the center of town throws a really great bake sale.

The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced I’m on to something with these ideas about God and iCloud. Some atheists derisively describe God as “Your magic friend who lives in the clouds,” after all. I’m perfectly fine with that concept, if this new magical friend makes sure I’ll never again find myself 3000 miles from home with a hard drive that’s making crunchy noises instead of retrieving the Keynote files I’ll need for the four hours of talks I traveled there to deliver.

I mean, at the time I prayed to my previous, analog God for deliverance… and a fat lot of good that did me.

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