In the end, maybe more than we realize. Today’s cloud system uses “thin clients” — simple interfaces like Google’s Chrome system — with minimal independent computing power. All of the data, software, and operating systems, software, and processing resources are stored in the cloud, managed by a cloud system administrator.
If that sounds familiar, it should. We are, quickly, recapturing the system configuration of the early 1980s, when dumb terminals (little more than a screen and a keyboard) connected to a mainframe maintained by a systems administrator. The administrator made the resource allocation decisions, prioritized work and controlled access to the processing systems. So the translation is clear: thin client = dumb terminal; cloud = mainframe.
That centralized system of control if fundamentally authoritarian. Today’s internet structure empowers individuals. On my laptop I have more processing power and data storage capacity than imaginable. From here I can link to the web and communicate with anyone. I choose my own software, save my own data, and innovate as and when I please.
In a cloud system or the old mainframe system, I make none of those decisions — my software is provided by the system administrator; who stores my data and controls what new innovations are made available. That’s a fundamentally authoritarian model where I lose much of the independence that has made the web a fountain of innovation and invention.
In a liberal western democracy, perhaps that is not a problem — after all, I don’t have to choose Google as my cloud provider if I don’t want to. But in more authoritarian states, the trend toward the cloud will make citizens even less able to control their own destiny. The internet empowered the liberty of dissent; we should be concerned that the cloud may take it away.