The Cloud Has Us All In A Fog

Ever heard of Dropship? It’s an open-source project that “enables arbitrary, anonymous transfers of files between Dropbox accounts.” Dropbox hopes you haven’t; they tried to squelch it this week, and even accidentally reported that it was subject to a DMCA takedown notice, with predictably futile results. I’m mostly sympathetic: I’m a huge fan of their service, Dropship was a clear violation of their terms, and for obvious reasons they don’t want to turn into an anonymous peer-to-peer file-sharing service. Unfortunately, they accidentally built a system which enabled just that.

How about Sony’s PlayStation Network? Of course you have. It was so thoroughly hacked this week that Sony had to shut it down indefinitely. Did you also know that Sony’s PS3 firmware is effectively wide open, because they made a hilariously stupid security mistake? Did you know that that’s probably how PSN got hacked, and that it raised the spectre of the hacker(s) taking over every connected PlayStation 3 in the world and turning them into by far the biggest botnet in history? That probably wasn’t what Sony had in mind, but they accidentally built a system which enabled just that.

How about the new Google Docs Android app? Came out this week, and it’s pretty great. Among its many features is the ability to take a picture of an image with text and have that text automatically OCRed and turned into a document. Can’t wait ’til they integrate Google Translate into that, too, and recapitulate last year’s hot app World Lens. But I bet book publishers are pretty unhappy. Not long ago, if you wanted to scan a book you had to actually build a scanner, or buy a copy and turn every page. Now would-be book pirates can just crowdsource 10 people to go to bookstores and take 20 pictures each, et voila: 400 scanned pages in Google Docs. Easier book piracy probably isn’t what Google had in mind, but they accidentally built a system which enables just that.

This was also the week that people who keep remotely controllable Internet-enabled camera/microphone/GPSes on them at all times expressed outraged surprise when they learned their privacy is at risk. The panopticon probably isn’t what the mobile industry had in mind, but they accidentally built a system which enables just that.

What do these all have in common? The unexpected results of connecting client devices to the cloud. (Yeah, I don’t really like the term either, but it’s better than the alternatives.) People talk about “moving to the cloud,” as if we haven’t already. The heavy lifting may happen on the server farms (when they’re up) but every connected computer, phone, and game console already serves as a computing cloud’s eye, ear, and tentacle.

Emergent properties. Unintended consequences. Get used to ’em. My favourite Douglas Adams books are the Dirk Gently novels, in which the protagonist makes use of “the fundamental interconnectedness of all things” to solve crimes in hilariously unexpected ways. Now we’re literally building that interconnectedness into (nearly) all things. So we shouldn’t be too surprised to find ourselves moving into a Dirk Gently future, in which off-kilter left-field ricochet consequences happen at an ever-increasing rate. You can bet that those cited above are just the beginning — and that there’s a lot of money to be made in seeing them before they happen.

Photo credit: Aspex Design, Flickr