07 September 2008

Federated Cloud Computing - Museums were there first

Last Tuesday, Google announced its Chrome Browser. I am not particularly interested in problems about "letting cartoon cats out of bags," but more so in the issues about ownership and rights to information that this move highlights. It is clear that what Google are doing is to set the stage for their moves into Clouds, which I, for one, am not completely opposed to. I think that there could be enormous benefits from Clouds, and I am more comfortable with Google's future role in these SaaS services than most of the other players I can think of. However, I do agree with Tim O'Reilly that there are far more advantages to innovation and user control in Federated Clouds and distributed open-source. However, one aspect of Clouds that caught my attention as I was watching the Chrome announcement on YouTube was just how similar many of the claims about Cloud computing are to what I study in the history of museums.

I realize that this, stated so directly, probably seems at least trivial if not downright daft. However, please bear with me. The key stated advantages of Cloud Computing -- aside from the technical advantages of performance, reliability and location independence -- are multitenancy, low barrier to entry, scalability, virtualization and security. The rise of public museums in the 19th Century claimed just these advantages, though in slightly different terms. Early public museums were vast centralized stores of the collected objects of the colonial world, collections that were deliberately duplicated across museums to create local redundancy of information. They were public institutions -- sort of -- creating an economy of scale from the multitenancy of both public and expert communities in one place. Increasingly throughout the century, and into the 2oth century, access to what was once expensive information collections open only to the very few, was made available to much larger numbers of users. Museums, as both large institutions and through networks of sharing, were ideally scalable information instruments. The increasingly professional nature of museums throughout the 20th century provided increasing levels of security both for the collections and for the associated information. Lastly, it is hard to argue that museums are not the preeminent instrument for creating diversity of access through virtualization. Museums as service institutions could also be said to be SaaS institutions as well. The value of museums are not, and have not been since the mid-19th century, mere collections of stuff, but are systems that provide numerous systems of access and use for the collections they house.

Now, why am I telling you all this? Why am I making what seems to be a somewhat true, but ultimately vacant analogy? The reason is that it is not all that vacant. The problem with museums as information access and service instruments is, and always has been, that ultimately the instrument and the centralization of services get in the way of innovation, diversity of understanding and cultural difference. This problem has been written about by James Clifford in his many papers about contact zones and indigenous knowledge, and is the same point made by Tim O'Reilly in his recent post about Cloud Computing. When museums have worked to create a service based access and use, as they have in particular over the past 30 years, they have forgotten that when these information accounts and services are centralized, through the institution or through standards of practice, they set the stage for what other can and cannot do. If we want to go and use an museum, we have to go and sit at their table, and their agenda is the only agenda on the table. This is the fear with Clouds as well.

This is not to conclude, as Tim O'Reilly does, that Cloud Computing is necessarily a bad thing. I agree with almost all of his conclusions, but that this is inevitable. It is not inevitable with museums either, but both seem to be going in the wrong direction for federated, user managed services and access. The language of the Cloud is so similar to the language of universal centralization dominating museums that it is scary. Scary because both could lead to increased marginalization and disenchantment from the diverse communities that find so much value in open-source and Web 2.0.