From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

July 31, 2007*: Get into my cloud

Because almost all of our family is in North America, our summer vacations (if they can be called that) are visits to grandparents approximately every three or four years. It's become rather customary for me to devote a Boidem column to my attempt to prepare a column during those vacations, and this year is, almost, no exception. Seven years ago I was relatively successful, finding, or perhaps "stealing", opportunities to get a bit of writing done instead of enjoying being with my family. Four years ago, though the tools available to me made preparing the column quite a bit easier, I became acutely aware of the obvious truth that while on vacation I can't expect to get much writing done. Having read those columns in preparation for our summer vacation of this year, I had only limited expectations of writing a column while away. I understood quite well that writing a column would mean stealing time from the main task of vacationing. But though I held no illusions about being able to write a column, I knew that I wanted (perhaps even "needed") to access numerous materials that have become an integral part of my life. In the past, doing that presented quite a challenge. It demanded more than just a bit of preparation. This time it was a simple, almost transparent task. Since many, if not most, of the materials with which I work, or that I turn to, are online, it really doesn't matter whether I'm home or abroad when I attempt to access them.

Some people, of course, travel with a laptop. I don't. The reason is actually very simple - I don't have one. Having a laptop would have offered me immediate access to whatever I would have stored on its hard drive, but who needs a hard drive? Sometimes one of the hardest decisions for me to make is where to save something I'm working on - in my mail, as a Google doc, or on my 2GB disk-on-key. All of those solutions serve me well, such that a laptop isn't really necessary. There's no denying that a laptop could make life easier, but four years ago I wouldn't have been able to access my mail or other materials from the homes of the people we stayed at from a laptop, and (at least until we arrived in Canada) I wasn't aware of the extent to which people today have wireless networks in their homes. A laptop certainly would have solved what was often my most pressing problem - working in Hebrew.

But as is to be expected, greater possibilities bring with them a desire for expanded use. So even if I wasn't going to be writing this column, there were numerous other tasks I expected, or hoped, I could attend to. In the past, when there was hardly any possibility of accessing my materials, I couldn't really expect to do much work while on vacation. This time, though I ostensibly detached myself from work, I didn't seriously expect to detach myself completely. (Frankly, I'm not sure I'm capable of being detached from "work" for a full month.) And of course the opposite is also true - when I am able to access work-related materials, it's almost impossible not to sit down and do some work.

Various definitions exist for the concept of "cloud computing", and my own seems to be a bit different from what seems to be the standard, accepted, definition. But I don't really deal with "cloud computing". Rather, I'm concerned with the idea of all my files, rather than being stored in one "physical" place, exist in a cloud that "follows" me wherever I go, allowing me to access those files (and applications) that I need from any computer that I use. Web-based services have developed to the point that this is not only feasible, but even desirable. While I primarily relate to getting into my cloud as the ability to retrieve materials that I might need, it's actually a two-way street. Not only do I want to get to items that I might want to use, but I'm also continually adding to them, and editing them. During our trip I found the time to prepare two Picasa web albums that described parts of our vacation, and it was only time restrictions, rather than technological ones, that kept me from uploading more, and finishing the task, until after our return. I also succeeded in uploading six posts to my Hebrew blog. Attending to these tasks offered me the opportunity to review and reflect on our trip. Choosing which photographs to upload, and what captions to give them, and reflecting on the educational ramifications of some of the things (and people) I encountered while vacationing, helped pace a frantic vacation, allowed me to feel that I was in control rather than being overwhelmed by it.

Perhaps serendipitously, while walking along a street in Montreal during our vacation I picked up a magazine that someone had discarded. The particular edition of the magazine that I found - HUB - Digital Living - (the magazine has a web site, but it seems that the print editions haven't been uploaded to the web for about a year) dealt with "digital summer". One article listed six reasons for taking your laptop on vacation, and another discussed "Wireless camping". In the editorial, David Tanaka notes:

The lowly computer has always had two faces: the business/work/serious face and the fun/hobbyist/creative face. Today, it's not just workaholics fearful of missing a single crucial corporate email who carry laptops on vacation. There's also a growing group of people for whom the digital lifestyle - and all the devices that entails - is the normal order of things. They don't want to turn off the fun and entertainment that the PC puts in their face; rather they want to enhance and enrich holiday time with that same information smorgasbord.
I can well understand that desire. Keeping the kids occupied is, for instance, a very convincing reason to have a computer that can play DVDs. But there seems to be a fundamental difference between what Tanaka describes, and my own reasons for wanting internet access while on vacation. On a blog post from this summer, Andy Carvin hints at least at part of this difference. Carvin refers to an AP-Ipsos poll that reports that one in five people vacation with their laptops. He admit that he does so as well. But he adds:
If I merely wanted to keep up with email, I'd use my phone for that. I bring along my laptop so I can make media. ... Forget work - I want my laptop with me so I can be creative.
Vacationing is tiring, even exhausting, work. I find it incredibly difficult to live out of a suitcase, to be a guest in other people's homes, and yes, to be with my children 24 hours a day. Compared to the effort necessary to vacation successfully, doing my own work is incredibly easy. Being able to blog about my vacation (or simply to keep a journal), or to post photographs of what we've seen and done is the sort of creativity that Carvin is referring to. And while I understand and even agree with him, that sort of writing doesn't have to be "creative". It can also serve as a clearinghouse for ideas and experiences. I'm often surprised to read about how relaxing a vacation can (or should) be, since, as noted, I find them hard work. Being able to turn to the computer and to the web, to check my mail and keep in touch with people (whether on issues related to work or not) is for me a way of diminishing the intensity of my vacation.

Years ago we used to read critiques of cyber-culture that suggested that a reliance on the internet would create the loss of a sense of place. I'm quite sure that our sense of place is swiftly diminishing, but I don't think that the internet is the culprit. Rather than cyberspace giving me a sense of homelessness, while on this vacation my ability to get into my cloud actually made me feel much more at home.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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