Cloud computing’s dark lining

Cheerful UK users of iCloud, Google Drive and other US-based services might do well to ponder this.

Cloud computing has exploded in recent years as a flexible, cheap way for individuals, companies and government bodies to remotely store documents and data. According to some estimates, 35 per cent of UK firms use some sort of cloud system – with Google Drive, Apple iCloud and Amazon Cloud Drive the major players.

But it has now emerged that all documents uploaded onto cloud systems based in the US or falling under Washington’s jurisdiction can be accessed and analysed without a warrant by American security agencies.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, known as FISA, allows US government agencies open access to any electronic information stored by non-American citizens by US-based companies. Quietly introduced during the dying days of President George W Bush’s administration in 2008, it was renewed over Christmas 2012.

But only now are privacy campaigners and legal experts waking up to the extent of the intrusion.

Time for UK-based cloud services?

Restaurants Turn Camera Shy

Tired of people tweeting what they’re about to eat? Well, according to the NYTimes, so are high-end restauranteurs.

When it comes to people taking photographs of their meals, the chef David Bouley has seen it all. There are the foreign tourists who, despite their big cameras, tend to be very discreet. There are those who use a flash and annoy everyone around them. There are those who come equipped with gorillapods — those small, flexible tripods to use on their tables.

There are even those who stand on their chairs to shoot their plates from above.

“We get on top of those folks right away or else it’s like a circus,” Mr. Bouley said.

Just for the record, I’m having tea and toast with home-made marmalade at the moment. Not worth a photograph.

German court declares Internet an “essential” utility

From Daily Dot.

The Internet is an “essential” utility, like heat or electricity, according to a German court.

A federal judge in the southwest state of Karlsruhe ruled Thursday in favor of a man who couldn’t use his DSL connection for two months in late 2008 and early 2009. He’d already been compensated for a disruption to his cell phone service.

Under German law, companies must provide compensation for failing to provide customers with “essential material items,” according to Reuters.

Just re-stating the obvious, really. But it’s strange to reflect on how perceptions of the Net made the transition from something weird and exotic (in the 1980s) to a public utility like running water and mains electricity (now). The downside is that we take it for granted and are therefore incurious about what’s special about it — which in turn might allow vested interests (governments and corporations) to capture it. That’s one of the thoughts that led me to write From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg: What You Really Need to Know About the Internet.

Eggheads at work

I’ve been reading Stephan Collini’s absorbing review of The Letters of T. S. Eliot Volume 3: 1926–1927 in the London Review of Books. A good deal of the review is taken up with discussion of the role that the Criterion, the serious highbrow literary quarterly of which Eliot had become the editor in 1922, played in the poet’s life. The magazine had at its core a small clique of literary intellectuals who met regularly for dinner. The thing about them that stood out for me is the fact that, with one exception (Bonamy Dobrée), none was an academic. F.S. Flint, for example, worked in the civil service. Howard Reed was a curator at the V&A. Alec Randall was a diplomat. And Orlo Williams was clerk to the House of Commons. (And of course for quite a few years Eliot himself had worked in a bank by day and functioned as a poet and literary intellectual only the evenings and at weekends.)

Noticing this led to one obvious thought about our own time. How many literary intellectuals – or even public intellectuals generally – nowadays have non–academic jobs? (Excluding journalism.) At the moment, I can only think of two: Matt Ridley, who I think is a banker of sorts (at least he was Chairman of one of the banks — Northern Rock — that spectacularly failed during the banking catastrophe); and Howard Davies. There must be others, but at the moment they are the only two that come to mind.

En passant, it’s worth remembering that the fact that the role of public intellectual has become the almost-exclusive preserve of tenured academics in the US is Richard Posner’s main explanation for the decline of the public intellectual in that country.

Three Years On!

Three years ago today, Steve Jobs launched the iPad on an expectant world, taking lots of people — including yours truly — by surprise.

Some toddler.

The Swerve: or how a book can take you by the throat

A friend of mine sent me a draft of a lecture she will be giving soon. It contained a reference to a book that she thought interesting and important. It was The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began by Stephen Greenblatt. Since I take my friend seriously, I followed the link and bought the Kindle edition. And now I can’t get any work done: it’s one of those books that takes you by the throat and just won’t let go until it reaches the end. It’s a beautifully-written account of the rediscovery, in 1417, of On The Nature of Things, a poem by Lucretius, and of the impact that rediscovery had in shaping the modern world. The book won a Pulitzer prize, and now I understand why.

Sic transit gloria mundi

This morning’s Observer column.

Nothing lasts forever: if history has any lesson for us, it is this. It’s a thought that comes from rereading Paul Kennedy’s magisterial tome, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, in which he shows that none of the great nation-states or empires of history – Rome; imperial Spain in 1600; France in either its Bourbon or Bonapartist manifestations; the Dutch republic in 1700; Britain in its imperial glory – succeeded in maintaining its global ascendancy for long.

What has this got to do with technology? Well, it provides us with a useful way of thinking about two of the tech world’s great powers.