EOF - A Cloud of One's Own

by Doc Searls

The phrase “supply and demand” first appeared as “demand and supply” in An Inquiry into the Principles of Political Economy by James Denham-Steuart. It was published in 1767, nine years before Adam Smith, a fellow member of the Scottish Enlightenment, came out with The Wealth of Nations. Among Denham-Steuart's many points about demand, two stand out. One is that demand “must constantly appear reciprocal. If I demand a pair of shoes, the shoemaker either demands money, or something else for his own use.” The other is that “The nature of demand is to encourage industry.”

And, perhaps it did. Not long after Denham-Steuart's time, Industry won the Industrial Revolution, and it has continued winning ever since. This has had the effect not only of putting supply ahead of demand as a central concern of economists, but also to reverse Denham-Steuart on the matter of who encourages whom. For example, the entire marketing industry—and advertising in particular—is premised on a belief that it is the nature of industry to encourage demand, which it does. But, does that mean demand must do only what supply wants? Or that demand can't often supply itself? Or that demand can't encourage industry in ways other than those that industry supplies?

The Internet has begun to obsolete this one-sided view (it's now plain that consumers do far more than consume). But most of us still anchor our economic perspective on the supply side. That is, we still look from supply toward demand, rather than from demand toward supply. Thus, we help demand by improving supply, not by helping demand—in Denham-Steuart's terms—to encourage industry. And, since every supplier is different, we end up with a choice as customers among many different ways for suppliers to encourage us. That's why, for example, we walk around with dozens of loyalty cards for different retailers, and why business in general remains a world of silos, even as the technology world is gradually getting hip to the silo-busting advantages of free and open-source software.

In fact, open-source code is possibly the best example we have of demand-and-supply. Is there a single open-source code base that was not created to overcome the absence of code with its functions already in the marketplace? Would Sergey Brin and Larry Page have bothered making Google if free and useful code were not out there to help make it possible?

Still, there is a difference between supplying building material and looking for more direct effects.

This brings me to the matter of cloud computing. It's a subject on which bedfellows no less odd than Larry Ellison and Richard M. Stallman find themselves in degrees of agreement. According to a September 2008 report in The Guardian, Ellison said, “Maybe I'm an idiot, but I have no idea what anyone is talking about. What is it? It's complete gibberish. It's insane. When is this idiocy going to stop?” Stallman said, “It's worse than stupidity: it's a marketing hype campaign....Somebody is saying this is inevitable—and whenever you hear somebody saying that, it's very likely to be a set of businesses campaigning to make it true.” He added: “One reason you should not use Web applications to do your computing is that you lose control....It's just as bad as using a proprietary program. Do your own computing on your own computer with your copy of a freedom-respecting program. If you use a proprietary program or somebody else's Web server, you're defenseless. You're putty in the hands of whoever developed that software.”

True: the PCs of today might be a lot smarter than the dumb terminals of computing's mainframe and minicomputer ages, but in respect to clouds, they're still terminals. That is, they are still remote: architecturally peripheral to the cloud itself.

Now, we could argue about what clouds are good for and have deep digressive exchanges about the premises (or even the facts) in that last paragraph, but instead, let's address this question: Why not have your own cloud? That is, why not be what Joe Andrieu calls the point of integration for your own data and the point of origination about what gets done with it?

One answer I like comes from The Mine! Project (themineproject.org), an open-source effort conceived and named by Adriana Lukas, and turned into code by Alec Muffett and a crew of allied geeks. As a name, Mine! refers to the first-person singular possessive pronoun, but its symbol is a miner's pickaxe: a tough real-world tool. The project's purpose, say Adriana and Alec, is to equip individuals with “tools and functionalities” that give them ways to “take charge of their data (content, relationships, transactions, knowledge); arrange (analyse, manipulate, combine, mash-up) it according to their needs and preferences and share it on their own terms whilst connected and networked on the Web.”

Although not exactly a cloud of one's own (which may be a contradiction in terms), it's close enough to obey RMS's admonitions. That is, it gives you control of your data and what can be done with it by others.

In a London gathering in early December 2009, Alec and Adriana showed Pymine, which they called “the first implementation of The Mine! Project software, in Python/Django”. As far as I know, it's the first purely open-source project that directly supports the mission I called out for ProjectVRM in 2006: to equip individuals with tools that make them both independent of vendors and better able to engage with vendors. Although it's not limited to commercial purposes. Any individual can use it for anything they like. “It's meant as infrastructure”, Alec said. What matters is that the infrastructure is yours. You don't have to build it on somebody else's platform. Or cloud.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal. He is also a fellow with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and the Center for Information Technology and Society at UC Santa Barbara.

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