I’m not a big fan of the “cloud” concept that is all the rage in commentaries on the Internet these days. The idea is that when millions of people pursue their individual passions using the modern tools of authorship, some brilliant bits of art are bound to emerge, often without attribution, and to spread virally through a Darwinian process of selection by the crowd that spawned them.
To my eyes and ears, this is just a modernized version of the old “a million monkeys pounding randomly on typewriters will eventually replicate Shakespeare” adage. It might be updated to say “a million monkeys with keyboards and webcams will every so often produce something worthwhile that we can link to.”
I don’t doubt that, from the perspective of statistics, this claim is true to a degree. What concerns me is that this emphasis upon the cloud reduces the status of the individuals within it and treats the fruits of their labor as almost incidental by-products of a collective system.
This not only treats individuals as monkeys, it treats us as anonymous monkeys and encourages us to think of each other in that fashion. Authorship devolves to the mob.
When a majority of people online accept this perspective, we end up with people creating simply for the purpose of being noticed and perhaps rewarded with the momentary attention of the crowd, rather than creating because they care about what they are doing. This leads to people treating their own work, and that of others, as a disposable curiosity.
What interests me about the Internet as a medium of expression is not the plethora of Twitter posts, pointless personal updates, inane web-cam clips, rehashed jokes, recycled rants, or sites that do little more than aggregate links to content created by other people. In other words, not the cloud.
What is compelling about the Internet are the little corners where obsessive amateurs and professionals pursue their eccentric interests with devotion and passion. Where people express ideas that took significantly longer to craft and create than they take to consume. Behind every successful forum on any topic are a small cadre of men and women who do the bulk of the work to keep it interesting and meaningful to those who look at it.
In other words, the value of the Internet lies in its ability to expose us to the quirks and gifts of individuals, odd signals that refuse to blend into the background noise. We conceal those individuals behind catchy labels and urls.
Whether any of us can be mathematically represented as particles in the cloud is beside the point. If we think of ourselves or each other in that way, we devalue what we create. Moreover, we do so in a fundamentally dishonest way, privileging a faceless concept without looking behind the curtain at the living hearts and minds that truly sustain this web that now connects so many of us.
I write because there are simply times when I have to write, have to think through ideas and play with their expression, to feel alive. And I am not an anonymous monkey even if no one else knows my name.