Interview with Vincent Mosco about his new book

Vincent Mosco is Professor Emeritus, Queen’s University, Canada. In his career he has focused on the political economy of information, communication, and the media. Back in the 80s he co-edited a book with Janet Wasko that was very influential to me as I was developing my thoughts on libraries and related subjects – The Political Economy of Information. (I used to have two copies of it but it seems I’ve given both of them away. The paperback edition is still in print.) Among the books he is responsible for more recently are his important texbook titled The Political Economy of Communication, now in its second edition from SAGE, and his The Digital Sublime: Myth, Power, and Cyberspace, from MIT Press. Both of these books are highly recommended to anyone who is interested in the kinds of things Library Juice has given attention to over the years. A new book by Dr. Mosco has just come out from Paradigm Publishers: To the Cloud: Big Data in a Turbulent World. He has graciously agreed to do an interview about this new book.

Dr. Mosco, thanks for agreeing to do this interview. I feel privileged to get to ask you some questions about this book. First, I wonder if you could briefly tell us what this book is about?

Thank you Rory. It is pleasure to share my thoughts with your readers.

To the Cloud is about cloud computing, which moves data, applications, and software from the desktop or on-site data center to a distant location, and big data which analyzes quantitative data typically stored in the cloud. It is the first critical examination of cloud computing moving beyond the affirmative, promotional and mythic tone of what has been written on the subject. As such, it concentrates on the growing concentration of corporate power in the industry, the environmental damage caused by large data centers and their massive power demands, the menace to privacy in the surveillance that the cloud enables, the threat to jobs, especially in the IT industry, and the dangers of the digital positivism that big data unleashes for many different ways of knowing. Nevertheless, if it were strictly regulated and organized as a public utility, cloud computing holds the potential for expanding access to information and communication and creates new opportunities for democratic social planning.

I have to comment that these represent a set of very important trends to talk about, and cloud computing is a convenient way to group them, but in most cases what you are talking about are phenomena that do not proceed directly from the specific innovation that cloud computing represents. So, regarding the concentration of corporate power, environmental damage caused by the industry, the menace to privacy, and even the problems to be found with big data, it seems that all of these things are linked to the internet in general as much as to cloud computing specifically. I wonder if you could talk about how cloud computing as a new development has affected some of these issues which were already problems in the internet era going back a decade or two. Certainly these problems have had your attention for some time. What are the new developments to be concerned about?

Correct. Cloud computing deepens and extends longstanding problems in what might best be called digital capitalism and its current trajectory forecloses opportunities for democratic communication. The industry is hardly a decade old and is now dominated by Amazon which, along with a handful of others like Microsoft, uses predatory pricing to drive out competitors and fight off all forms of regulation. Even the CIA relies on Amazon for cloud services. As companies and governments recognize the cost savings in cloud computing, the global demand for data centers is growing. The need for 24/7 service makes massive demands on the power grid for processing and cooling servers and requires environmentally dangerous back up systems including diesel generators, chemical batteries and flywheels. The shift from PCs and in-house storage to the cloud makes surveillance easier and big data analytics extends the power of surveillance. It is no coincidence that the NSA is building one of the largest cloud computing systems in the world. Moreover, the cloud poses a massive threat to IT jobs. In fact, one expert describes cloud computing as nothing more than a global drive to eliminate and outsource IT labor. Finally, the spread of big data analytics enshrines a singular way of knowing that relies solely on quantitative data and correlational analysis and denies the value of theory, history, subjectivity and qualitative ways of knowing. A common line among enthusiasts is that “the data will speak for itself”. In essence, cloud computing brings together digital capitalism and digital positivism in ways that threaten democracy. It is therefore imperative that we begin a discussion of how to control the cloud and how to realize its genuine potential as a public resource.

It’s a really exciting book that pulls together a number of threads that have to be understood in relation to each other. It suggests more books on each of its related topics: for example, I think we need a book about big data in particular that extends the criticisms you bring to it here. But at the same time, the combinations of many of these phenomena present a new complex that I think you are right to try to understand as a whole. The new reality of surveillance via the cloud may be a problem in itself, and the digital positivism of big data may be a problem in itself, but in combination we are talking about a digital-positivist surveillance of individuals that renders our subjective choices and meanings into limited variables and quantities, all adjudicated at a level beyond our knowledge and control through these corporate structures that own the cloud. Your analysis presents a fairly dystopian vision – scary stuff – and yet you find reason to be hopeful about the cloud as a public resource. How do you envision that possibility? Can all of these problems be solved via more democratic control of these resources?

It is scary stuff. You get a clear sense of how important the cloud and big data are for surveillance capitalism and the surveillance state by examining how fiercely they are being promoted. In the chapter “Selling the Cloud Sublime,” I take a close look at the role of advertising, blogs and other social media, private think thanks like McKinsey and Company, international organizations like the World Economic Forum, lobbying, and trade shows in marketing the cloud and big data.

Nevertheless, it is important to think broadly and dialectically about the relationship between technology and society. Doing so helps me to identify counterpoints to the cloud envisioned by big companies and the NSA and counterpoints to the singular way of knowing advanced by big data enthusiasts. Examining the history of the cloud computing concept takes me to variations on the public, information, or computer utility concept which was prominent in research on computers in the 1950s and 60s, in the West, in the Soviet cybernetics program for national economic planning, and in the 1970s in the experiments with using computers to promote democratic socialism in Chile. Each of these strains of thought suggests another way of thinking about cloud computing emphasizing public purpose and social planning over commercialism and corporate profit. I think we are at a point not unlike that of the electrical industry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when unbridled capitalism shaped decisions on who had access to electricity with no public oversight. Ultimately, citizens and the great social movements of the time refused to accept the view that corporate greed should determine access to technology and created public utilities that, however unevenly and problematically, guaranteed universal access at affordable rates. I envision a similar movement taking shape today around the scourge of inequality and led by activist educators, librarians and other knowledge workers. Such movements are not guarantees of a democratic outcome but provide the means to fight for one and the hope necessary to carry on the struggle.

Moreover, in the concluding chapter of the book I address the counterpoints to big data drawn from an epistemological critique of digital positivism (the failure to consider qualitative data, history, theory, subjectivity and the limits of correlational analysis) and a broader critique from what I call “cloud culture,” or the humanistic tradition that spans Aristophanes’ play The Clouds, the medieval text The Cloud of Unknowing, and David Mitchell’s magnificent work of fiction Cloud Atlas. All of these provide a rich stew of alternatives to the narrow singularity of big data’s imperious and dangerous digital positivism. The times and our many problems call for many ways of knowing that need to be revived and supported. There may be numerous dark clouds forming but there are also many bright spots on the horizon including growing attacks on the many failures of big data analysis and the recognition by a surprisingly large number of technical experts, social scientists and humanists that other ways of knowing are essential.

Thanks for talking to me about your book. Any thoughts on what is next for you in your writing life?

I am beginning to think about a book on the so-called internet of things which, like cloud computing, is grounded in mythic thinking . But whereas the cloud imagines a universal intelligence available to all people, even as corporations and the surveillance state sequester it for their interests, the internet of things envisions a universal intelligence embedded in all matter, even as those same business and their partners in the state design it as an instrument of profit and control. Does it too contain a democratic potential?

However the subject gets formulated, my approach has been fairly consistent over the forty years that I have been writing about technology. First, stay ahead of the curve and “plant a flag” of critical thinking when you arrive so that those following can cut through promotional thinking and deepen opportunities for political intervention. Second, situate what you find ahead of the curve in a historical context that enriches alternative ways of thinking. Finally, carry out research with the mind of an activist and act with the mind of a theorist. The goal should be praxis or the unity of theory and activism.

Thanks for the opportunity to discuss my book.

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