The Cloud Remakes America

By Marco R. della Cava, USA TODAY

Link to original article, here.

Quick, take a look around. Your stuff is disappearing.

Not long ago, homes would greet you with physical manifestations of personality — stately books, shiny CDs, classic movies on DVD, glossy photo albums. But all those touchstones, and more, are quickly changing from atoms to bits and taking up residence in the cloud, that shared virtual warehouse-in-the-sky being built out by Google, Amazon, Apple and others, where they await retrieval via our phones, tablets and computers.

The digitization of our lives is exploding: Last year, music downloads surpassed CD sales for the first time; e-books went from novelties to a billion-dollar market in a flash; and streaming is becoming the preferred way to take in films and TV shows.

So does that signal the death of materialism, of possessing, of collecting? The answer is as complicated as the technology.

“Anyone who has ever picked up a shell on a beach has the collector gene,” says Silicon Valley futurist Paul Saffo. “There’s little difference between someone who saves old Kodachrome prints in a garage and the person who stores digital photos online. If anything, the collector gene will be unleashed by the cloud.”

Spencer Haley, 33, who works at fabled Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore., once proudly displayed 3,000 hardcovers in his home. But since a Kindle joined the family, he and his wife are down to a few hundred. “As long as the content hits my visual cortex, it doesn’t matter what form it comes in,” he says.

For Haley, collecting still means adding to those prized first-editions on his shelves. But it also refers to the list of e-books on his tablet, the book reviews he has amassed online and the friends who follow his recommendations via social networking.

“I missed flipping pages for about a day,” Haley says. “I don’t have CD or DVD racks anymore. Having things stored in the cloud just fits my lifestyle.”

But for others, the black-hole nature of the cloud only heightens the old-fashioned need to embrace something solid. Denver high school senior Ethan Hill is no stranger to gadgets and streaming subscriptions, but he adores collecting music on vinyl.

“There’s nothing like going into a record store and coming home with something in my hand,” says Hill, 17. “It’s a possession I’m proud of. I double-click on iTunes all the time, but it’s not the same.”

Collecting as socializing

This tech-driven shift is seismic; even the vaunted Encyclopedia Britannica soon will cease to exist in physical form. But the cloud is giving the concept of possession broader meaning.

Where it once meant “holding on to something in your room, now it’s about engaging with others online around a social object,” says Harvard tech culture researcher David Weinberger, author of Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room.

“Everything is heading into the social cloud,” he says. “Books on shelves used to serve that function, but to a very small group that usually already knew you. It’s the difference between fetishizing objects or celebrating them online, where at least you can make friends.”

Given that actual ownership isn’t required to form connections online around areas of mutual interest, the line between owning and renting is blurring. In a PricewaterhouseCoopers survey on attitudes toward the cloud released in February, 90% of respondents were “somewhat” to “very interested” in the concept of storing and accessing content from a personal digital library. Most were specifically interested in the cloud as a rental hub.

“Two things happened in the past years: Technology improved, and the economy got worse,” says Theodore Garcia, managing director of PwC’s entertainment, media and communications practice.

“You remember when people had 500-disc DVD changers? Well, that’s when DVDs were impulse buys. Today, the value a consumer places on a physical disc is far less. It’s not about owning. They want to view the content and move on.”

Netflix knows that all too well. Its subscribers streamed 2 billion hours of movies and TV shows in the fourth quarter of 2011, a massive move away from the DVD rental model on which the pioneering company was founded.

“It’s the skinnying down of America and the whole world,” says Steve Swasey, a spokesman for Netflix. “It’s great to buy a book or DVD, but in truth, how many times will you read or watch it? Technology has always been a catalyst for consumer shifts. Look at young people today; their whole life is in a phone or a tablet. They seem to want to do with less, to be unencumbered.”

Other major cloud-computing players agree that for many consumers, less can be far more.

“I collected books and albums like everyone, but in the old days, you’d quickly run out of space in your house and risk renting a storage locker just to keep your stuff,” says Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president of Internet software and services, overseeing the company’s varied content stores as well as its iCloud service.

He notes that iTunes’ Cover Flow feature, which lets users scroll through titles, is the modern-day version of flipping through albums. “Streaming (music) is great, because it’s about discovering new music. But eventually, if it’s something that’s meaningful to you, you want to own it.”

Mitch Singer, the chief digital strategy officer for Sony Pictures, says “we all have collecting in our DNA.” Singer also serves as president of UltraViolet, Hollywood’s foray into the cloud, which allows you to stash movies purchased from a variety of sources in a digital locker.

On Tuesday, Wal-Mart announced a “disc-to-digital” service through UltraViolet that lets customers bring in their standard- and high-definition DVDs and — for $2 and $5 respectively — buy full digital access to that content. “Owning is fundamentally about sharing,” Singer says. “If you can’t share, you won’t collect.”

Going beyond the object

Sometimes it’s not even about sharing an object of obsession. In the past, displaying a worn copy of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon or Hermann Hesse’s Siddharthamight have earned you hip credentials, but today it’s as much about what you have to say about those masterpieces.

“We don’t view the Kindle as a device but as a service that helps define you to others,” says Russ Grandinetti, vice president of content for Amazon’s e-reader. “In the past, you’d walk into someone’s house and see books on shelves. Now, you share all that virtually, along with your notes on a book and suggestions for other books.”

Grandinetti says the upside of the cloud revolution often is overlooked by those who lament the cultural demotion of objects.

“Maybe the record or CD collection is gone in physical form, but people listen to more music than ever,” he says. “What you must remember is that digital representations don’t necessarily totally replace the real thing. The physical object in some cases becomes an art object.”

Architect Mark Demerly says today’s homes are being designed to reflect both the cloud and physical collections as entertainment equipment shrinks and display areas grow to accommodate prized possessions.

“You’re talking about very sophisticated folks who are fully connected to the Web, but they still want to see these things that mean so much to them, whether that’s books or Civil War memorabilia,” says Demerly, an architect in Indianapolis who is chairman of the American Institute of Architects‘ custom residential committee. “It’s about telling people who you are.”

That is something the Web does masterfully. And perhaps to a fault, says Wiredmagazine writer Steven Levy, author of In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works and Shapes Our Lives.

“The digital age has such a strong component of broadcasting and sharing that it’s almost like you’re doing it for self-promotion,” he says. “But there’s a difference between what I buy and showcase for myself at home and what I list online to say, ‘Here’s who I want you to think I am.’ ”

Levy used to collect vintage lunchboxes until the joy of the hunt was killed by the ease of eBay. Though he says younger generations seem to care less about physical objects, he predicts a growing “retro mystique” around collecting. “Fundamentally, collecting is a commitment to something, and that’s powerful,” he says.

The album-cover blues

Eileen Gittins remembers those days. The fiftysomething CEO of Blurb, an online self-publishing site that caters to photographers and authors, says she recently was hit by a wave of sadness when she realized she had no idea what musician was streaming through her home’s speakers.

“You used to have this moment when you bonded with the artist through the actual album, but now there’s nothing to see, and it bugs me,” Gittins says. “Our company caters to people who want to have a physically beautiful object, either to hold onto themselves or to give as a gift.”

Gittins is no Luddite, and she happily embraces the trend of sharing photos through a range of cloud-based social networking sites. But precisely because it’s so easy to share photos on Facebook, images we elect to print out are imbued with greater importance.

“You come back from Thailand, and maybe you want to preserve that memory in a book of photos and not a link to Flickr,” she says. “By bringing something into the physical world, you’re saying it matters to you.”

In fact, what mattered to many Boomers — physical objects created by others — is different from what has meaning for the next generation, says Jyri Engestrom, an Internet entrepreneur and founder of Ditto, a social networking site.

“My children aren’t interested in physical representations of media, they are far more intrigued by objects they create themselves,” Engestrom says, noting that he is an investor in a 3-D printing company called Tinkercad, which lets two-dimensional designs come to life.

“The sheer force of the utility of the cloud will cause us to let go of books and CDs and DVDs,” he says. “What we want to consume, we’ll stream. What we’ll collect, we might not even use.”

The cloud is here to stay. But for many, that doesn’t mean the advent of a stuff-less society.

Denver high-schooler Hill says trolling old record shops for music made by ’80s power pop bands such Nikki and the Corvettes isn’t about bucking the latest tech trend. It’s a pastime that helps shape who he is.

“I applaud people who can get rid of material objects,” Hill says. “But I like to have things around that connect me to moments and memories in my life.

“And I think I always will.”

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