Recently, the idea of a cloud computing service delivered as a public utility was pitched to me. The idea was that computing power made available to those who would otherwise be unable to afford it would be a societal good. For example, imagine an academic group that needs compute for a research project. Or municipalities that would benefit their citizenry by leveraging a cloud-as-utility.
My initial reaction was a flat-out rejection of this idea. My instinct, not always a correct one, is to view government projects with skepticism. Corruption and graft. Underhanded political deals. Nepotism. Budget overruns. Unaccountable leadership. Ineptitude. Right or wrong, I often frame government in this context.
Beyond my natural skepticism, my instinct is informed by experience. I’ve worked for state government before, deep in the IT system, and have some idea of how government works. (At least one specific government’s executive branch.)
In my time employed by various departments and offices, I worked on IT teams where talented technologists who wanted to do tremendous work were thwarted in their attempts to do so. The constraints on doing the right technical thing were many, but most often tied to funding. Where did the money come from? What are the legal strings attached to that money? Can the money be used for this project or not? If there’s some gray area, is there anyone that can guide us so that we can proceed confidently? If not, how else might the project be funded? (Not at all, probably.)
Funding challenges were a major part of every IT project. Over time, I learned to ask first not about business needs but funding sources when my phone would ring about a project. During a project, as much of my time was absorbed by bureaucracy as by technology. I’m not actually being critical here. I argue that tediously tracking taxpayer dollars is entirely appropriate.
My point is that even if we remove outright evil from the government equation and assume technology competence, government is shackled by legislatively dictated processes and complex accounting. Getting things done in the government context is hard.
From a standpoint of execution, I’m therefore dubious of a cloud computing service offered as a public utility. Could it be done in the modern American political climate? With enough will of the right people and resistance to inevitable lobbyists, perhaps it could.
For purposes of our discussion going forward, let’s even assume that cloud-as-utility can be done. If that seems to unreal to you, consider other massive public projects that have been successful over the centuries. Plentiful precedents plead plausibility.
Another question comes to mind when considering a cloud computing stack offered as a utility. Is computing a right? By considering the question of a public utility cloud service, I could argue that computing-as-a-right is implied. I’m not sure I do argue that, but I don’t think it’s a wild assertion.
I am not well-equipped to answer this question. I am not trained in philosophy, and I’ve never been a diligent student of history or law. But I find the thought intriguing. For instance, consider public education. Most folks agree that, in principle, public education is a right afforded to the members of that society because education ultimately benefits that society as a whole.
As an information society awash in data, computing power, machine learning, and algorithms, should computing be a right granted to all members of that society? Does ubiquitous computing, in fact, benefit an information society as a whole?
On the surface, the question seems ludicrous. Can we compare rights such as the freedom of speech to computing? That’s silly, isn’t it? I’m not certain.
Let’s go back to our education example. What if education was fully privatized? You’d end up with a societal divide more dramatic than the one we experience now, where some people benefit from their wealth and receive an exclusive education. People without means would endure whatever education they could conjure, including no education whatsoever. The gap would grow.
Is there a similar gap with computing? It depends. For-profit corporations and well-funded research institutions (often funded by taxpayers) can lease time from cloud providers or build their own computing infrastructures. Without sufficient money, the sorts of projects that can be done are limited. So yes, there’s a gap.
Whether or not that gap should be bridged by a government operated cloud utility service is another question. I’m not certain that computing is or is not a right simply because we’re in an information society. No doubt philosophers have opinions, although I hope they settle the issue of healthcare being a human right first, at least here in America.
As I leave you without a strong opinion, the point then is to think. While my thinking on this issue is currently exploratory, I do think there’s something here worth thinking about.