Social Implications of Cloud Computing

By: Bob Dourandish

It is odd to fight the urge to start an essay on technology with a cliché – no less the granddaddy of all clichés: ”it was a dark and stormy night”. Alas that is precisely where we must start. That night, some believe 1.4 million years ago, a small band of prehistoric humans were huddled under trees to ride out the fiercest storm any had witnessed. As they shivered in the cold rain, barely protected by their leafy shelter that betrayed them with each gust, the group cowered as the sky lit up and earthshaking rumblings crossed overhead. Suddenly the sky lit up once more. A bright bolt struck from the above and a tree near the frightened bunch was instantly ablaze. As they watched the conflagration, and although, I suspect, some soiled themselves in fear, they also felt the warmth and were drawn to the flames.

Humans had discovered fire.

By most accounts, that was a critical point in the story of human species. It took another 800,000 years, give or take a few weeks, for humans to figure out how to control fire, including its creation, transportation, and most importantly utilization. By cooking their food, our distant relatives were able to reduce the energy burden on their digestive systems which enabled them to evolve larger brain. That development, most likely, was the starting point of a continuum that, weaving through uncountable individuals and events, is unfolding at the present time as I type these words. I should embellish, invoking some chimerical romantic license, and report a fierce storm outside of my window. Sadly, it is a clear night and the only sound I hear is the delightful music playing on a Parisian radio station I like to stream. Pondering the surreal contrast of the two nights, I can’t help but wonder what our generation’s “fire” may be. I surprise myself with how fast I settle on one answer: Cloud Computing.

“Cloud Computing?”, I can almost hear the chorus of protest, listing more significant technologies such as Nano Technology, Space Travel, Mobile Computing, Stem Cell Research, Genetic Engineering, and yes, even the Internet.

A key attribute making Cloud Computing the “fire” of our age is because, more than any other technology of our time, it promotes population shift which, historically, has been central in development of changes in human history. Population shift has been cited as the key reason behind wars, culinary choices or options, slavery, fashion preferences and leisure activities, revolutions, development of new social ideologies or philosophies, radicalization of religion, healthcare, and, of course, significant new technological advances particularly in transportation, law enforcement, and commerce.

The Technology
Cloud Computing centralizes storage, manipulation, and access to information. It is the amalgamation of dozens of reasonably mature technologies such as the Internet, Virtualization, and Networked Storage, melded together via security and interface protocols that govern various components of the World Wide Web.

How Cloud Computing Will Cause Significant Population Shift
People have been flocking to cities for at least as far back as the industrial revolution, a trend that is expected to continue. In fact, the 2005 revision to the UN urbanization project estimates that 4.9 billion people, or 60% of the earth’s total population, will be inhabiting cities by 2030. As expected, this rate of growth is generally considered unsustainable, particularly in the third world countries where urbanization is expected to proceed at far faster pace than in richer nations. This analysis was performed before the advent of Cloud Computing, a technology that I believe will disrupt the very fundamental reason for city-bound migration: Employment.

There are many reasons for cities to have become centers of commerce and employment. The concentration of skilled workers and opportunity form a circular conduit to promote steady rise in most city dwellers’ wealth. Such growth in the personal financial capacity generates a myriad of economic activities that support both the small and local “mom and pop” shop as well as multi-national enterprises. These economic activities, in turn, create more employment opportunities that will then attract more individuals to cities, continuing the urbanization process that began centuries ago.

Of course urban living is far from utopical and inhabitants must often endure a range of challenges such as traffic, pollution, overcrowding, lack of open space, higher cost of living – particularly housing, and crime. These factors have combined with better regional transportation to reduce the allure of metropolises for at least the upper middle class who, since 1950s, have increasingly flocked away from the cities, creating the sub-urbanization phenomenon. In chief motivated by lower cost of home ownership, the sub-urbanization process has noticeably changed the industrial makeup of cities as more and more companies have relocated, in whole or part, to suburbs. Examples of suburbs that have outperformed the economies of their nearby cities are Silicon Valley, a geographically ill-defined area between San Jose and San Francisco, and Akihabara, near Tokyo.

What the sub-urbanization process has definitively demonstrated is that certain groups of people, if able to ensure continued employment, will move away from cities. The key enablers of sub-urbanization have been improvements in regional transportation, the advent of the Internet and personal communications technologies, particularly mobile communications. These technologies have enabled individuals to extend their commute range, work remotely, and use their time more efficiently and productively.

While the role and impact of the Internet in the sub-urbanization process can not be denied, it is important to recognize that Internet technologies are communications tools. Simply stated this means that fundamentally, like its predecessors the Phone and even the Telegraph, Internet shortens communications cycles and distances and, at best, is an enabling technology. By contrast, Cloud Computing is a tool that virtualizes the corporation through providing sufficient security, storage management, collaboration tools, and access controls to enable a significant range of functions traditionally available only at the physical “office”. In other words, using Cloud Computing, the “corporate headquarters” can relocate to cyberspace.

This transition is pivotal. Whereas the internet made it possible for employees to work remotely, the Cloud will make it possible for employers to setup virtual offices that function quite similarly to the brick and mortar counterparts. Employees can then “arrive” at their virtual desk at a designated time and have full access to all of the organization’s resources including their colleagues and be available for impromptu meetings in virtual collaboration rooms that combine high definition audio and video with high speed Internet connectivity to deliver practically the same experience as being in the same room.

As the class of 2050 enters the workforce, we will see these practices to become the norm. I expect that by the year 2080 but no later than the turn of century, in-person team meetings will be considered “quaint” if not “antiquated” or be convened under special circumstances, such as emergencies or celebrations.

With location no longer a key to employment, at least for the typical office worker, young families will be able to move farther and farther from metropolises and the surrounding suburbs. On the onset, this process will mimic routine shifts, such as from cities to suburbs or one region to another. However, as essential services such as high speed Internet and pediatrics become available, remote and rural communities will be able to attract knowledge workers and their families. This increase in population will, in turn, attract small businesses and begin a growth process for remote and small communities. It will also usher in the age of de-urbanization that I expect will be in full swing by 2060.

De-Urbanization Impact
De-urbanization, as used here, is the process of population migration far away from cities and the surrounding suburbs. The most noteworthy effect of de-urbanization is draining of hard currency from metropolitan areas. This capital flight will take many forms. As less and lesser-skilled individuals work in cities, the employment tax base will shrink. The smaller workforce that depends on the city will also mean reduced commuter numbers, creating significant financial challenge for the short-haul public transportation, particularly the typical Metro and Bus Services. As the skilled positions leave, city properties, particularly commercial real estate and apartment buildings, will be valued less and less. This deflation will not only create a financial burden for cities as the property tax base erodes, but may also herald another mortgage-based financial crisis. By year 2080, I would expect most cities to have two major population groups, divided along most demographics. City dwellers will likely to be the very young or the elderly – sharing the lack of opportunity elsewhere and reliance on city-based services, as the binding glue that keeps them there. In terms of financial capacity, I would be expect a very small middle class population, if at all – though I believe the definition of middle class will have be augmented to distinguish this class, perhaps labeled as Metro-Middle. This class will probably be composed of lower-middle managers and small business entrepreneurs, working in service industries that depend primarily on the location. The shrinking middle class, coupled with the numerous financial challenges only some of which were mentioned here will of course translate to deep social problems, perhaps the least of which will be a sharp and sustained increase in crime.

Despite these difficulties cities will not vanish. Instead, I believe starting 2060, cities will begin to reinvent themselves as more of a themed ecosystem, much like the Disney parks, offering expansive options in shopping, live entertainment, and healthcare. These industries will provide not only a local tax base but will also create limited training and employment opportunities for city dwellers. However, this will not be enough. The combination of diminished opportunities in cities and the effort to revitalize them will usher in the second wave of social change caused by Cloud Computing.

It is likely that cities will create largescale medical facilities to both cater to the local population and attract “medical visitors”, meaning it is likely that these centers will develop deep specialization to exploit economies of scale to allow them market their services nationally, perhaps even globally. This projection, however, does not imply major changes in the way healthcare is delivered. The current tiered approach of delivering local care through smaller medical offices while major medical issues are referred to regional medical megaplexes will likely continue.

Transportation and related infrastructure will go through significant changes. With reduced need for in-person meetings, business travel will decrease to a negligible level, severely pressuring the airline industry and instigating consolidations or bankruptcies. The surviving airlines, limited by their cost structure particularly fuel prices, will likely re-focus their marketing on leisure and personal travel in the interstate and international sectors. It is almost impossible to predict how the trucking industry or, for that matter, the full spectrum of hard goods distribution industry will change. These industries have bound cost elements, e.g., fuel costs and union contracts that limit cost management options. At the same time, an expanded service area as predicted in our scenario will create new markets and thus new revenue growth opportunities. In terms of cargo, transnational transportation will likely to continue unchanged, save discovery of an alternative form of fuel.

Regardless of fuel used or available, the most pronounced change in transportation will be at the regional level. As cities begin their push to offer large-scale, specialized services to attract day- and short-term visitors, the need for rapid and comfortable regional transportation will increase. Some of these services, such as the High Speed Rail, are already viewed as enabling technologies and we expect that, over time, they will play increasingly more important role in economic development of cities than large airports. Along the same lines, I expect growing development in regional air transportation, particularly the concept of on-demand “Air Taxi”, as well as regional airports and supporting facilities.

At the societal level, the cloud could have the most far-reaching impact. The combination of the cloud, the trend to shift to the network the majority of local intelligence from an end-user device such as a smart phone or a personal computer, and geo-location technology, could enable a series of extreme societal changes. A frightening example of such possibilities may be censorship where a community forbids content deemed “undesirable” delivered on network or devices within their jurisdiction. Such content will simply be unknown to anyone within that jurisdiction. If left unchecked, this local “preference”, enforced through the Cloud will, eventually, facilitate creation of homogeneous communities that control various attributes of their residents such as, eventually, race, religion, and political leanings. The ability to censor based on the local choice and preferences will of course reignite the First Amendment debate, ushering another important aspect of Cloud-induced societal changes in the judicial dimension. Along the same facet, I expect the need for our laws to address a wide range of newly created issues, ranging from whether or not an individual’s Cloud data can be used to enhance his Credit Score, as well as the metrics that now form various Equal Opportunity protections.

Clearly, the economic impact of the Cloud will be staggering. As discussed, the newfound mobility will avail hard currently in areas currently considered rural and remote. For a while this will be a welcomed change from centuries of capital and skill flight from these locales. Eventually, within ten generations perhaps, the process will subsume the meaningful portion, if not all of the arable land in knowledge-based economies, e.g. , the industrial nations. In the short run, the demand for food will facilitate development of some meaningful production in Africa as the global market will begin to support much higher price for foodstuffs, necessary to underwrite farming in Africa. Primarily though, the reduction in industrial nations’ agricultural output will be met with proportional rise from South America and the Middle East. It is likely that none of the world’s industrial nations see anything but bad outcome in promoting the Middle East as the world’s food producers. It is, therefore, my expectation that the G8 will support South America. Such support, born out of rational political reasoning, will nonetheless negatively impact the environment as countries within the Amazonia rush to clear the jungle. More importantly, however, this position will leave China “out in the cold” – creating a potentially sensitive situation at a global level. I would expect China to respond in a number of fashions that will exploit its position as the world’s manufacturing leader and producer of rare earth minerals. I expect that any economic blackmail will also be paired with committing considerable resources in furthering African agricultural output. I believe that the G8 countries and China share the same view of the Middle East and, barring a surprise development, I anticipate that the battle for food be fought in the world markets and stock exchanges rather than via armed regional or global conflicts. As such, I also believe that the Chinese attempt to counter any G8 program, as envisioned here, will yield significant advances in agricultural technologies, particularly in irrigation and vertical farming. .

Cloud Computing, while exciting to software engineers such as myself, has not garnered any attention outside the technical circles. Here I have tried to demonstrate how powerful this technology actually is and how profoundly it will change our world over this and the next centuries. I liken it to discovery of “fire” and consider this to be just as seminal of an event in human history. My key reason for this position is the fact that the technology will free, at the very least, a significant majority of office workers from the shackles of a physical corporate location. This newfound mobility will, in my opinion, eventually cause large-scale migration away from Metropolitan areas as location loses its import as a key element of employment and financial security. Based on that premise, I layout several scenarios, some fantastic and some frightening, as corporate offices relocate to cyberspace in a meaningful way.