Cloud Cognition


My son was leaving after his holiday visit, halfway out the door, when the Bride stopped him.  He had already been asked if he knew how to get back to New York from Northern Virginia by his sister – “Yes, I have GPS.”  The Bride, however, had updated information.  “Don’t trust the GPS to get to the Wilson Bridge, it will tell you to stay to the right, but the exit is on the left now. Read the signs, not the GPS.” 

There had been an eight-year project to redo the “mixing bowl” in Springfield, VA, completed recently.  So recently, in fact, that most GPS systems are not programmed to “know” the new configuration.  This reminds me of the outstanding principle allegedly detailed in a Swedish Army Manual:  If the terrain and the map do not agree, follow the terrain. 

Road signs hold environmental information, we trust them to help us navigate.  Or did.  If you’re using GPS, how attentive are you to road signs anymore?  If you’re in a strange city and the road signs “disagree” with your GPS instructions, what is your choice?  What if you’re driving an Opel Insignia, with front cameras that recognize road signs? 

Personally, I trust my GPS system, even when I notice “she” is taking me on the occasional odd path.  It is easier, for me, than learning my way around an area.  The Bride, however, has a running disagreement with my GPS system – and often asks me what “she” is thinking.  I let the women fight it out most days, although I often find myself in odd conversations defending the GPS system’s behavior.  It passes the time.

I should pause here and note a definitional issue with my logic.  Several friends have pointed out to me that the scale is the thing in cloud computing.  It is not simply offloading cognitive processing to a distant computer or connect to distributed sensors.  It is that we can connect to many computers or potentially all sensors.  The cloud is not the thermometer or my local page on wunderground.com, it is the fact that I can know the temperature for most any point on earth.  I do not disagree, scale is indeed the thing for cloud computing.  However, I’m trying to think through the implications for this scale on our cloud cognition behavior, which predates computers.  

Back to trust.  I recently met with a firm working on second-factor authentication.  Identity-centric computing, how to ensure the cloud trusts the individual is who they say they are.  The information sharing strategy from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence states that individuals need to share information on a network with mechanisms to ensure other users have the appropriate access and know to protect information found there.  In part, this firm is helping answer initiative 2B from the ODNI 500-Day Plan, “Implement Attribute-Based Access and Discovery.”  This firm has an approach that scales massively, and may answer may of the issues for “government 2.0” applications.

We know to trust the terrain, if it disagrees with the map.  We used to trust road signs, but now often don’t notice them – particularly if we are waiting for our GPS voice to tell us the way.  (For whatever reason, we are so inattentive, that we are now building cars to read the signs for us!)  We trust Amazon with our credit card information and our buying history.  We trust eBay is securing the integrity of its online auctions. We trust Google and Facebook and MySpace with all sorts of personal information, even while we have little understanding of the current and potential use for this trusted information by these companies.  (It’s sometimes useful to think of them as companies rather than websites.)

Trust, we are told, is gained through an expectation of things like authority, reciprocity and care.  However, trust for cloud cognition may be offered on another basis – convenience.  It is simply more convenient to trust than not to.  How many users read End-User License Agreements (EULA)?  Remember the controversy over the EULA for the Google Chrome browser?  We are giving up control and safety for convenience, because we are interested primarily in what works.  We will trust the cloud so long as it does not violate our trust, or so we tell ourselves. We are frogs in the frying pan, dimly aware of the ongoing war to douse the flame before our trusting nature dooms us.  We rush to build authenticating mechanisms for this unstoppable move to the cloud, even as malefactors rush to steal from us by exploiting our trust.

The analogy to international banking systems is irresistible.  We trusted in financial wizards because it worked, and there was no reason not to – except for those who took the time to understand the nature of the underlying “securities.” We already trust much and offload some measure of our lives to the ever-increasing cloud.  We write of ways to increase trust, while the real job is to ensure the cloud earns the trust we have already given it.

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Thinking out loud here…

Chat last night on Twitter about cloud computing, the definition having been recently updated on Wikipedia by @bobgourley.  One gentle challenge was offered by @lewisshepherd:  By the simpler definition, a print server would be deemed cloud computing – is that what is meant?  

At one level, it is not altogether useful to have such broad definitions that the reader is unable to move from the definition to understanding what LinkedIn and Amazon Web Services have in common.  However, as a “specialist of the whole,” I was immediately seduced by the simplicity.  If a user can use distant computers to process local jobs, she is working with cloud computing.  (Cloud computering?)

Take this to another level.  In a most excellent book, Natural Born Cyborgs, Andy Clark wrote that we started offloading cognitive processes when we put on wristwatches.  When someone asks you if you have the time, you say yes – because you know you can look at the watch to get the current time. You likely don’t know it without checking, this may be why you’re asked if you “have” the time, rather than if you “know” the time.  

If someone asks for your phone number, you retrieve it from the wonderful wetware behind your eyes. (Some of us of a certain age eventually lose this information, “I don’t know, I never call it!”)

So what is the difference between looking up your phone number in your brain and checking your wristwatch?  Probably the reliance on previously unrelated variables – if the silly watch battery dies, I suddenly don’t know the time.

Somewhere around 1000 B.C., I suspect cave folk knew it was cold by walking outside and seeing the ice form.  Around 1617, the first thermoscopes were used to compare temperature changes.  As a child, I saw mercury thermometers on the house to tell me when it was freezing.  This morning, the Bride checked weather.com to find out our (somewhat) local temperature is 14 degrees F.  At what stage did we offload cognitive processes to “know” the local temperature?

Andy Clark is right, we are already cyborgs to a degree.  We have always involved technology to help us offload cognitive tasks.  As we consider the various definitions for “cloud computing,” it may be useful to consider it as the next logical step in moving from the cave to the hive mind.

What?

Well, beyond technology – we have also used our social connections to better understand our environment.  “Is it cold out there” to “does anyone know any good new restaurants” is  logical progress.  One is shouted to your fellow cave-dweller, the other a question posed using social media.

So cloud cognition is the offloading of cognitive processes, but also the use of distributed sensors to better understand our habitat.  No man is an island, indeed.