matrix

I know, it seems an odd question. But a few different things over the last couple of days got me thinking …

Years ago, before either Google or Apple ecosystems were really deserving of the term, I managed all my device synchronisation manually: I decided what content got synced on what devices. My music too: iTunes was allowed to play it, but not to manage it – I took care of the folder structures and meta-data myself. And the miscellaneous notes I kept were in a folder full of text files, the format deliberately chosen to be compatible with anything, not sitting inside Apple’s Notes app.

My view was that it should be me, not some piece of software or online service, that made the decisions about how things got done. Fast-forward to today, however, and things are quite different around here … 

icloud

I let iCloud take care of device syncing and iOS backups. My email still sits on a friend’s server, but peek into my iCloud settings and all those other switches are set to on. I gave in a couple of years ago and ticked the box to allow iTunes to manage my music. I have iTunes Match, and instead of manually copying across the music I want on my iPhone, I tend to simply download it from Match.

itunes

I’m not quite ready to give up owning my music in favor of streaming, but I’m beginning to wonder why. About ten years ago, I finally got rid of all my CDs after asking myself why I would want a tonne of plastic disks cluttering up the place? I must confess that – obscure stuff aside, that might not be available on Spotify – I’m not quite sure my insistence on physically having the ones and zeroes on my own Mac makes much more sense.

tc

My Mac backups, too, are automated. Apple, not me, decided they should be hourly. Apple, not me, decides how long particular backups are retained before being over-written. Granted I’m a belt-and-braces man, so use Time Machine plus Carbon Copy Cloner plus online backup, but once I’d configured it all I let automation and schedules take care of it all for me.

icloud_hero

In general, I’m not a fan of Steve Jobs’ vision of ridding us of the file-system – I like my filesystem, thanks! – but I do love being able to start an article at home on my MacBook Pro in Pages then continue it on the train on my iPad, perhaps do some edits to it in a coffee-shop on my MacBook Air, all without having to know or care where it is actually stored.

why810

I tend to do the new year’s resolution thing. I aim to cycle 3000 miles this year. I decided the same thing last year and didn’t, so this year I opted to enrol the help of some technology. I invested in a Garmin Edge 810 Bluetooth-connected GPS, which talks to my iPhone which talks to the web.

This means that with the press of two buttons and a tap of the screen, I have a complete online record of every ride I do, complete with an embarrassing amount of data. It’s all there: distances, times, speeds, calories burned – even the speed and direction of that stiff headwind I claimed to be battling.

data

I only need access to the numbers myself, but as I have a bunch of cycling mates on Strava, all of whom share their data, and because a bit of peer pressure can’t hurt, I decided I might as well join in. So I set my data to public, and now the whole world can see how slow I am uphill.

hero_2

What strikes me about all this is that I have repeatedly made a bunch of decisions to sacrifice control (option, command …) of my technology in order to gain convenience. Where once I wanted everything to be under my own control, today I’m much more ‘Meh, so long as it works.’

And I’m a tech guy. I like understanding how technology works, and I like making my own tech decisions. The average consumer out there not only doesn’t care to take control of their tech, most of the time they don’t even know that the choices exist.

2020

Fast-forward five or ten years, and I wonder how much further down that slippery slope we will slide. Will we even have personal devices in ten years’ time, or will all the data, apps and settings – the stuff that makes a device personal – be in the cloud, and we just logon to whatever chunk of hardware happens to be nearest at the time?

Will even techies decide that Jobs was right, file systems are the old paradigm, and all that matters is the right data being available to us in the right place at the right time?

In short, will we give up our insistence on calling all the shots and simply allow automation and technological intelligence to figure out how we need things to work? And is that necessarily a bad thing? As ever, let us know your views in the comments …

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60 Responses to “Opinion: Five years from now, will we have given up all control of our technology?”

  1. Jeff Clark says:

    I feel that we have continued to release control, options, and command over our computing world…. However things that grow faster than we can manage it is harder to maintain any of those three. Learning to “ride the wave” is the new perspective for many of us. Great post!

  2. Evan Roskos says:

    Good thoughts here.

    I think about this a lot, as I (like many) grew up using MS-DOS and basically etching the concept of file structure into my very brain. Apple is clearly trying to jettison that kind of relationship and I think the use of iCloud + tags is the biggest signal that we won’t manage file locations anymore aside from tagging them. I’m not sure that’s a BAD thing, but when it’s combined with what you initially highlight above — app-control over files/data — then you get a sense that there’s actually a really profound way of thinking that’s being lost. I don’t necessarily like or need having that much control over my data, but I definitely learned an organized way of thinking by having to do it that way for so many years.

    • Ben Lovejoy says:

      Yes, I’m the same – I’m fairly sure my brain is organised into folders. Tagging as an alternative to location makes perfect sense, I just haven’t managed to convert my brain to the format yet.

  3. As long as technology somehow remains physical and not some weird thing almost nobody understands. And I really hope we as humans remain humans, not some tech zombies wearing tech all over us, never communicating in real life or enjoying the world around us. I hope Apple won’t mess up humanity. Google however… Glass and personal drones concern me.

  4. rogifan says:

    Great article Ben. Would love to see more like this on this site.

  5. ycreatives says:

    Insightful post, really enjoyed reading it! Full automation of file management accessed solely through spoken commands is likely to be the future, but I still don’t care much for Google Glass. Something about technology being that conveniently integrated into humans is a little daunting… But not really any different to how I operate with my apple devices I guess!

  6. Reid MR says:

    With the NSA revelations, I am unhappy about everything being managed “in the cloud” purely out of principle. When I tried to revert to manually manage my syncing through iTunes (vs through iCloud) I found it can no longer be done with iOS 7 and Mavericks. Then I contacted Craig Federighi at Apple and he said a security whitepaper would be posted by the end of last month. I haven’t seen it yet. I would like to have more control over my information purely out of principle and to prevent organizations from snooping on me contrary to the social agreement we have agreed to abide by (the constitution).

    • Ben Lovejoy says:

      A bigger topic for another article, perhaps :-)

    • Dillon Baio says:

      I’m running iOS 7 and Mavericks and my iTunes still has the option to “manually manage music and videos”. Also, if you’re syncing directly from iTunes, nothing is being managed in the cloud. It doesn’t sync your music with iCloud, it downloads individually what you tell it to and then it’s done, unless of course you tell it to download things you’ve bought on other devices automatically, which is optional. iTunes itself is taking what you have checked (if you tell it to only sync checked items) and syncing those things to your phone from the program, comparing the list of things on your phone and what it has each time. iTunes in the cloud simply shows you a link to anything you’ve bought that isn’t on your phone, and you can download it. That’s not managing anything, that’s a purchase history with download links.

  7. Steve Scott says:

    This is what technology is about, the smarter it gets the less intrusive and the more intuitive it becomes. I agree, ultimately technology will just do what we expect without any real thought or process. A slave to the master or is that a master to the slave….???????

    • Ben Lovejoy says:

      Indeed, some days I’m not quite sure who’s running the show. There still seem to be quite a few times I end up doing some repetitive task to sort out my tech, and think to myself “Wasn’t doing tedious, repetitive tasks why we invented computers in the first place?”

  8. amitvedant says:

    Cannot imagine. Looking at past 5 years the advancement seems gradual to me. Maybe 2025 I guess for this thing to happen.

  9. I’ve been struggling with GarageBand and these type issues lately. I’m just a hobbyist who’s been playing guitar for 18 years. I like to dabble, but I’m not trying to make money with music. GB on iPad is great for sketching up ideas wherever I am. With pre-iOS 7 GB for iOS and pre-Mavericks GB for Mac, I could move my iPad GB files to my Mac and then replace all the cheaper GB amp sims and virtual instruments with high quality industry leading plugins. But that option’s gone now. I thought, “Well, I’ll just move the audio and MIDI files from my GB over to Reaper” a low cost DAW. No luck. Logic Pro can do that with ease, but GB is locked to GB. Though the files are straightforward audio and MIDI, they can’t be brought out of GB without compromise. Paying $200 for the upgrade’s a bit out of my budget for a hobby. So I’m stuck. All because the files are locked and what I can do with my own content is predetermined.

    • Ben Lovejoy says:

      Yes, I suspect most of us have at some point just wanted to shout at one of our devices “Just give me my ******* file, dammit!”

    • This is possible although not super easy. In GarageBand on the iPad, select the song then save to iTunes. It will ask if you want to save it as iTunes (mixed down audio file) or GarageBand. Pick GB. Now in iTunes on your Mac, you can access the “My Song.band” file in the Apps tab for the device. Save to desktop. You can right click and “show package contents” on the .band file. All your audio is in there.

  10. Shawn Joseph says:

    “Fast-forward five or ten years, and I wonder how much further down that slippery slope we will slide. Will we even have personal devices in ten years’ time, or will all the data, apps and settings – the stuff that makes a device personal – be in the cloud, and we just logon to whatever chunk of hardware happens to be nearest at the time?”

    Sounds a LOT like the Chromebook I am typing this from today. Maybe Google IS on to something after all? :)

    • Ben Lovejoy says:

      I think so. I’m resistant to the idea partly on practical grounds – high-speed net access isn’t yet nearly ubiquitous enough to make me willing to give up my local content – but partly on some vague point of principle. The Chromebook approach still lets you have local content, but it’s certainly very much pointing the way to the future, I think.

  11. I like the idea of my information being stored within apps versus some large filing system I have to navigate. Every year I’m forced to sift through mine and try to make sense of everything. I would prefer a copy of iCloud backups on my computer, even if I didn’t understand the file structure, just I could be sure it was there. And I hope that eventually we can condense the various file types and stick to a few universal ones; .pdf, .txt, etc. it’s why I’m leaving Word for good. I now have multiple old Word files that Word can no longer open up, very odd.

    • Ben Lovejoy says:

      File formats used to concern me a lot, and I deliberately stuck to basic ones like .txt wherever possible. I’m less precious about it these days. Any mainstream file format is going to be supported for a long time even if apps come and go.

  12. I think this is inevitable. As technology gets more sophisticated — and as we get more overwhelmed by the amount of information coming from every direction — we will need and want automation to take over. The cloud will get smarter, devices will get smarter, software will get smarter … all these things will take on an intelligence of their own. Which will hopefully make things less stressful for us and allow our daily lives to go smoother. We will either have to give up control or be controlled by the avalanche of data constantly coming at us.

  13. There are options in the market to create your own personal cloud. It is concerning though the rate in which we are losing control from our devices.
    iTunes takes the cake on this and makes things unnecessarily complicated and opaque.
    Wouldn’t be great if we can just drag and drop files in and out of our devices?
    Apple has the reputation of being easy to use but sometimes is the opposite, ask the average user how to transfer music to or from iOS devices and they wont know. It is confusing and non intuitive.

    • Ben Lovejoy says:

      For me, part of the benefit of cloud backup is it’s not local – so protected against the burglary and house-fire scenario. ‘Local’ cloud storage seems to me to miss part of the point.

      I do agree, though, there are definitely times when all I want to do is drag content between devices.

  14. Is worrisome also how Apple aggressively takes control of your device.
    Case in point. I had to make a restore to my iPad that had iOS 6 installed.
    However iTunes didn’t let me restore my iOS6 backup unless i upgraded to iOS 7.
    In other words,anyone with iOS6 or earlier who needs to do a Restore needs to upgrade to iOS7 weather you like it or not.
    It is so frustrating and disappointing to lose control of what you want to do with you own device.

    • Ben Lovejoy says:

      Yes, that’s the other aspect of it – the stuff we don’t get to choose any more …

      • I understand why Apple wants 100% market conversion to iOS7 but they are alienating customers in the process with these aggressive obsessive borderline Nazi tactics.
        They need to be more flexible and let customer decide.
        Google is not saint either, it is horrible the way they forced the Youtube membership into G+ and now they want to close Android and be more vertically integrated.
        Same with Microsoft with the purchase of Nokia and their Surface Tablets.

    • Apple has never allowed downgrading. “Restore” always gets the latest version for your device. Clearly they are encouraging developers to always use the latest. As a developer myself, it’s not a bad place to be. Makes testing a lot simpler.

      • True but never forget the customers. At the end of the day these gadgets were designed for the customers rather than the developers. Steve Jobs said things like start with Customer experience and work your way back to the technology. Because iOS7 was a significant upgrade it should allowed the coexistence of iOS 6 if customers prefered it. iOS broke compatibility with some apps i loved. My 70yo mom was proud that she sort of mastered her classic iOS ipad but here came Apple changing the UX for no good reason and now she is lost and frustrated cos is harder to learn at her age.
        I think Apple have become arrogant and are full of s.
        Even though iOS7 introduced great features the inexperience of John Ive in UX design shows. Perhaps Tim Cook to blame here.
        As an admision of failure, Apple the once pioneer of UX design is changing it once again….

  15. Shaun G says:

    I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Apple followed the Google Chrome route and made all future software and hardware updates “invisible” to the user so that they just happen in the background thereby taking away much of the fear factor in owning a computer for non-techie people. I could live with that as long as I had the option to save some files to local storage rather than the iCloud. Alternatively Apple could open iCloud server offices outside the US and offer the option to store your iCloud on non-US servers with a few options made available such as Norway. I too am concerned about the NSA and Apple being an American company they would have very little say in the matter.

  16. NSA knows what is good for you .. does it?

    Savely encrypted Cloud Data … yeah, sure ….

    Want to keep my filesystem on my drive(s).

  17. bIg HilL says:

    As I am totally against NSA, spying, covert listening and snooping I will not be taking part in the cloud for as long as possible. I have already avoided it for over 20 years, having learned about it when studying HND + B.Eng Manufacturing Engineering at Salford Tech/University on a sandwich course. For as long as they sell HDs I will have one. I download my MP3s from wherever they are available and never use iTunes. Backup on my iMac is done to an external Samsung 1TB drive using Time Machine. When I am not in the house I avoid computers and phones, I even leave my Samsung C275L flip model at home, except when sleeping out and I need an alarm clock to wake me up. FYI I am also opposed to so-called smartphones, which, coupled with the exposé above are insidious.

    There is life beyond the internet, there is plenty more to do than become wholly engrossed in email, Facebook, Twitter etc. As the saying goes, “Get A Life!”

  18. winncity says:

    “I aim to cycle 3,000 miles this year”

    Ben, I’m doing CGY. A good way to get your miles up. $100 off for the next 60 registrants.

    http://blog.cyclegreateryellowstone.com/event-news/early-bird-price-60-spots-left/

    Not affiliated. Just participating. Can’t wait.

  19. Alex Chee says:

    I think Steve Jobs was right.

    Think of this analogy, a file stored in either HDD or SSD or flash (lets call this storage) is stored in bits (8 bits make 1 byte). Are the bits stored in structured order in the storage? Most of the time, No.
    Are we aware of it? Yes, but does it matter? No.
    Do we have control over it? No. Does it work? Yes.
    How does it work? The OS or storage management software link the bits back together to form the bytes of the original file, automatically in sequential order (well,… as they were coded).
    We can store them differently in partition to segregate the bits though… but is it necessary? No. That’s why we adopted RAID in SAN, which hook up multiple HDD/SDD to form a large common drive/folder.

    Transpose this upwards to folders. Files are stored in folders (or directories). Traditionally we keep them “organized” by separating them into different sub folders so that we can find them when we need them.
    If we have a software/search tool that allows us to find them, irregardless of where they are, so long as we tag them, just like how the bits are stringed together automatically because they are “tagged” to an identified byte or file. Do we still need to organize them the traditional “structured” way? How much space does subfolders consumed on a storage?

    Today, public cloud storage consist of huge storage located in data centres all over the world. Do we know exactly where the actual files stored in the cloud are located? maybe. Does it matter as long as we can retrieve them? No.

    Such is the paradigm shift which many including Steve Jobs, foresee and are actively implementing.
    Is there an alternative to cloud storage? well, maybe,… :)

    • Ben Lovejoy says:

      I agree, folders are simply a familiar metaphor that we’ve grown up with. There is nothing inherently superior to a tagging system. As you rightly observe, none of it is ‘real’ anyway.

  20. In some ways I can regard it as relinquishing control, but in another ways I get more in control. Let me take an example:

    Lets say I have a lot of PDF. I also have a lot of files in other formats. Some of the PDFs and some of the Pages documents are related to programming, and some are related to extreme sports. With a folder hierarchy I can put all the PDFs in one folder, and all the Pages documents in another folder, but then I will have a mix of PDFs about programming and extreme sports in the same folder. I will also have a mix of Pages documents in that folder.

    On the other hand I can put all the programming related stuff in one folder, and extreme sports in another folder, but then I get a mix of different types of documents in each folder.

    It might not be so bad to have both PDFs and Pages documents in the same folder, as long as they are about the same subject, but what if I also have photographs from some parachuting session. Do I put that together with other photographs or in the folder with PDFs and Pages documents about extreme sports? I can put the photos in TWO places. Both amongst the other photos, but also in the Extreme sports folder, but that means I will have duplicates.

    I have always had troubled with how to organize some files before. Now I can tag them all instead. I have my photos in iPhoto, but you don’t have to. You can organize them in the Photos folder if you want, but in Mavericks we can tag them, so I have a tag for Extreme Sports, so whenever I search for things related to Extreme Sports I can find both the photos AND all my PDFs and Pages documents on the same subject, no matter where on the disk they are stored.

    I feel that by tagging stuff, I get MORE control, than I had before.

    • Ben Lovejoy says:

      As a long-time Lightroom user, I’ve long been tagging my photos with keywords, and that does work remarkably well, so really there’s no reason that approach couldn’t be extended to all my files.

  21. allegromaestoso says:

    I can understand the reason of convenience that might make sense to give up control in certain areas, however, when it crosses the line into dependency that is where I don’t agree with it.
    If I have to depend on other people’s servers working and having a functioning internet connection in order to access my data is a potential mess I rather not want to get into. And as of lately, knowing that personal privacy is not something governments are willing to respect, I rather keep my things local.

  22. kjl3000 says:

    It’s all about choice! Apple seems to finally gray out the on off switches for iCloud usage. The (quiet) removal of the sync services framework in mavericks seems to prove that apple no longer wants you to decide whether to use iCloud or not. I think Apple is crossing a line right now by forcing users to put their personal information (in this case address book, calendar, …) into the cloud.

    Cloud services have to remain an option beside local services, and I think we all should demand that much stronger!

  23. Great article. This is really the holy grail of tech today – understanding when and how we will let technology do stuff for us.

    I share a lot of the same feelings, specially the one around music. I can’t believe today I’m using 100% Spotify, and one year ago I was swearing that I needed to own my music and I would never do streaming.

    The key point, in my opinion, is the WHEN. I believe you can’t tackle everything at any given time. For example, the Chrome OS. It’s a great example of how it is hard to give away control, but I believe it is way ahead of its time. I might be wrong, but I stand by my view today. That is the reason it didn’t get considerable traction yet. And I think this is where Steve Jobs was best and it was his advantage of competition – he knew the WHEN better than anyone else, and would never try to get ahead of its time.

  24. C G says:

    I work as a computer tech, helping customers, data after day with their tech. So this cloud based world is unfortunately one I think we will end up in, for the simple reason that, a predominant amount of my customers don’t care enough to learn how to properly use their tech. No one backs up data, no one minds storage capacity on internal hard drives. The tech industry is slowly becoming a “waiting” industry. So a cloud based world seems the only direction this type of behavior will take us.

  25. Mark Carabin says:

    I’ve been finding myself in the same boat for a number of years. When I got my first iPod (3rd gen back when I had to order it from a specialty “Mac” shop and wait close to 3 months for it to come in), I remember proudly spending hours meticulously picking songs and playlists, organizing files on my computer at home, partially due to hard drive size constraints, but all because I, like Ben, enjoyed the feeling of being in control of the digital universe I had created. I find myself more and more often relying on the cloud for things nowadays, and while it is convenient for some things, like working on something on one device, picking it up on another, and having things appear seamlessly whenever and wherever I need them, I find it’s definitely not a replacement for owning my own files, and still retaining some control over my content. I do, however, find myself more and more often reaching for my iPad instead of my MacBook (2008 pre-pro aluminum unibody, which is admittedly getting a little long in the tooth) but it’s simply because most of what I do at home can be done through my iDevices. For work, my iMac is irreplaceable. It really does hit me as a cars vs. trucks kind of scenario. Even with iCloud integration, using programs like Pixelmator would either require me to upgrade my iCloud storage even more than I already have, or just stick with local organization and a solid filing system I’ve spent time creating and maintaining. With tags in Mavericks, that organization has become a little easier, and I can see myself using real folders less and less due to how easy it is to search things with tagging, but I still couldn’t do this all in the cloud, or on a mobile device. It certainly is tricky to get used to, and I’m curious to see where it all leads in a few years.

    Great article. Thanks!