In the Cloud

About a week ago my MacBook started doing something alarming. As I was typing along, the screen would suddenly go dark. Not completely black – I could still see my desktop, but too dark to see what I was typing. If I shut down and restarted, it was fine – for a while. After a few days of this, it stopped being fine, even for a while.

MacBooks aren’t supposed to do alarming things. Annoying things, perhaps. Sometimes the beachball of doom spins endlessly until I force an unresposive app to quit, but that’s easily fixable. No permanent damage.

Having a too-dark screen doesn’t leave many possibilities for noodling around, trying to figure out a fix. So I went to visit the geniuses.

I had never been to the Mac Store before. It’s not like other stores – no aisles, just large tables where customers played with iPads and Macbook Airs. At the back of the store was a long bar with stools. Customers were seated on the stools, and blue-shirted geniuses behind the bar typed into Macbook Pros. There was no paper anywhere.

Before I could brace myself for frustration, a smiling genius approached me, carrying an iPad. “Do you have an appointment?” he asked.

I did not have an appointment. I should have known that geniuses do not speak to mortals without an appointment, but I had foolishly assumed that since macs rarely need service, there would be nobody in line. 

But he thumbed-in my information, and fifteen minutes later I was walking out of the store – without my MacBook. It was an inexpensive problem – the thingy that makes the screen light up was dying, not the monitor itself. But they did not have the part; it would be a week before they could have it fixed.

Since I had already asked my son if I could borrow his old MacBook, I wasn’t worried. I would still be able to work on my book, get gmail, and buy things I don’t need on Amazon.

My son’s old computer is exactly like mine – except that it is full of his stuff, not mine. Getting what I needed onto his mac wasn’t difficult, but I feel like I’m living out of a suitcase, in a strange hotel where you can’t find the lightswitches. I certainly don’t need or use everything that’s on my hard drive, but I keep missing things.

It’s not a problem, but it has started me thinking about the cloud. There is already plenty of online data storage; I am thinking about iCloud, Apple’s upcoming sync solution, to be released with iOS 5.

I often run into people who are annoyed and dismayed that all their favorite software doesn’t have an iphone app that syncs instantly without wifi or USB cables or special software. They lurk on forums, hounding the developer, demanding to know when the iphone / ipad versions will be out.

Using my phone as a remote computer has never seemed practical to me. Maybe I don’t do enough texting to be an efficient thumb-typist, but it takes me much longer to type a message on my phone that to just pull out a piece of paper and write it down.

A prevailing attitude has arisen: if the technology exists to do something, then we ought to have instant, ubiquitous access to that technology – free of charge. Twenty years ago, a few people had PDA’s (small bricks that needed frequent re-charging and didn’t sync with anything), but most of us still used paper to keep track of our calendars and shopping lists.

The idea that I might one day carry a phone containing my entire database – to my sons this is not remarkable, but it didn’t occur to me that this might happen anytime soon. That’s because I was born when phones still had dials and televisions had rabbit ears. Even the Jetsons didn’t have iphones.

Do I want to keep all my stuff in the cloud? It sounds good, but I have a few questions:

How do I know my stuff is secure? Nobody is going to steal my novel or publish my diary on the internet, but what about all those logins and credit card numbers?

What happens if my online ‘box’ crashes, or is invaded by hackers, or goes out of business? Can I trust my data to these sites? As I explored online data storage options, I was several times met with a message like this: “This site no longer exists.”

What do I do with all this data?

Hard drives crash. A lot of younger teachers don’t keep paper gradebooks, but I’ve had my hard drive crash twice – just before grades were due.

If I keep everything on my hard drive, what happens when my document formats are no longer readable? Text files and pdf’s will probably be around for a long time, but a lot of the applications I use store data in a proprietary format.

I’ve started using Evernote to keep articles and snippets of information. I have my doubts about how secure it is, but I don’t store anything sensitive there. I sometimes use Google documents and Zoho. I have a Penzu account as well. Separated from my macbook, I begin to see the value of having things in the cloud.

My school, however, exists in an alternate reality where most of these useful solutions are blocked. I take my phone and laptop to school, but these things are easily stolen. There may be no paper in the Mac Store, but I still use paper copies of my lesson plans and gradebook.

I’m not sure if I want to live in the cloud – not completely. If it were not so easy to collect articles and snippets, I wouldn’t have several gigs of them squirreled away in a proprietary format on my hard drive. I don’t like being a slave to all these bits of data, worrying about whether I’m going to be able to read them when I’m at school or in the Amsterdam airport or in the air over the Pacific.

What ever happened to just thinking?

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