Cloud computing, cloud commuting and risk management

I’m a big fan of Zipcar for many reasons, among which the least-discussed is that it lets me never worry about car maintenance. I’m one of those auto n00bs that mechanics love to see come through the door: ignorant, anxious, and trusting. So owning my own car is an ongoing maintenance liability: every “check engine” light is yet another opportunity to blow a few hundred dollars on repairs of dubious value.

Zipcar lifts the burden of car ownership and gives me what I want: a convenient way to get to the outlet mall and back. I don’t need to take adult ed classes on auto maintenance nor turn car ownership into a hobby.

Zipcar does for cars what The Cloud does for computing. It divvies up labor and lets specialists deal with issues with far more expertise and much better economies of scale than distributed ownership. We don’t need to know how to change the air filters or set up MySQL to drive to the beach or post a photo album.

On top of efficient division of labor, cloud computing/commuting also distributes risk appropriately. This means that the inevitable lemon car or DOA hard drive is handled as part of a larger batch rather than dumped, hot-potato-like, on individual hapless victims. This also means that consumers, in aggregate, make better choices. When presented with two hard drives — one of which is $10 more than the other, but also 5% more likely to fail — an individual is likely to go for the cheaper option and roll the dice. The cloud, on the other hand, is more likely to make rational cost-benefit analyses. An sysadmin who buys 100 hard drives knows that 5% failure rate means 5 dead drives, not a random gamble.

This kind of logic extends to all sorts of capital goods, including housing. Putting so much capital into a single investment strikes me as somewhat feudal in an era when capitalism argues for diversification and specialization (that is: buy REITs and outsource your real estate management).

What I like best about the cloud approach is that it’s eminently capitalist while capturing the flavor of socialism. We pool our resources, but we pay for what we get within a robust marketplace. (Zipcar will have really succeeded when they face a viable nationwide competitor).

Now I don’t believe that we should completely alienate our cars/condos/computers to some vendor and end up at its mercy. Even as I keep more and more of my stuff on Google and other clouds, I also want the option of backing it up on my own personal hard drives. And yes, some people take deep pleasure in ownership, tinkering with the car or repainting the shed. (I myself just built a new computer this week). But for those of us who aren’t expert mechanics, programmers, or construction contractors (nor friends with one), trustworthy cloud services can help mitigate the risks associated with ownership while tapping into expertise not otherwise accessible.

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