Parental Computing

I love reading the Atlantic. I have a vivid memory of it from 1987 when I was glued to Robert Kaplan‘s in-depth report on the seeds of the Eritrean fight for independence from Ethiopia (I think it was called Surrender or Starve: the Wars Behind the Famine). His words were a major factor in my decision to focus undergraduate and graduate work on the security of the Horn of Africa. Here’s an excerpt from his 1988 report called The African Killing Fields, published in the Washington Monthly

…disturbing was the ambivalence of President Reagan on this important issue. What communists were doing in Ethiopia was far more horrible than what communists were doing in Angola or Nicaragua. But while other administration officials frequently criticized the regime in the strongest possible terms, President Reagan himself was practically silent.

A communist regime brutally uprooted its own citizens against their will, forcibly separating hundreds of thousands from their families and killing tens of thousands through deliberate mistreatment. But the impact of this cataclysm on the media, a conservative White House, and the American public was minimal.

Rather than a catastrophe, the famine was a godsend for this regime.

Castro and Mengistu
An AFP photo of Fidel Castro and Mengistu Haile Mariam, from the BBC

It still amazes me to this day how few people realize that it was an army of 300,000 active troops on the high plains backed by Soviet and Cuban advisors and technology that failed to defeat the EPRDF rebels (associated with the EPLF, TPLF, EPDM and OPDO). Even fewer realize almost half the EPLF troops (in a conservative, patriarchal Islamic area) were women.

Now when the US military, current advisors to the Ethiopian Army, watch venerable Soviet T-55 tanks roll into Somalia it makes me curious all again about the role of authority in the region. Anyway, the Atlantic reporters have delivered some fantastic analysis and been a great source of inspiration.

With that in mind I found a recent technology post by a senior editor amusing but sorely lacking in analysis. He titled it “The Cloud’s My-Mom-Cleaned-My-Room Problem

…the freedom of usage that defined personal computing does not extend to the world of parental computing. This isn’t a bug in the way that cloud services work. It is a feature. What we lose in freedom we gain in convenience. Maybe the tradeoff is worth it. Or maybe it’s something that just happened to us, which we’ll regret when we realize the privacy, security, and autonomy we’ve given up to sync our documents and correspondence across computers.

I don’t see the same conclusion at all.

The author settles with one extremely narrow, perhaps even rare, ideal of parental authority and stretches it into a simile for cloud computing. Authority is an element of any relationship; but what is the probability that all cloud providers will choose to be like a parent who cleans your room? The author fails to assert why this is the only outcome or definition of parental computing.

This is not to say parental computing is a bad simile as far as authority goes (it’s bad for other reasons), but simply to state the obvious that parental styles are diverse — not all parents are authoritarian or even authoritative. It seems entirely possible for cloud computing to be based on a permissive parent computing or uninvolved parent computing model. The freedom of personal computing therefore easily could extend into a world we would call parental computing.

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