A man tells an off-color joke to a bunch of buddies while out fishing. They all laugh like crazy. Two weeks later, he tells the same off-color joke to an audience of couples while introducing the guest speaker at a black-tie dinner reception. He is greeted with silence and uncomfortable stares, and his wife refuses to speak to him for the rest of the evening.
What went wrong?
The information (i.e. the content of the joke) did not change. So why did he bomb at dinner? Obviously, the context changed. Information of any form, whether a joke or a scientific formula, only acquires its full meaning in context. And conversely, one could argue, any set of data, given the right context, can acquire new meaning and therefore greater value. Just imagine the same unfortunate dinner speaker doing things in reverse: he tells his joke to audience after audience, greeted time after time with silence and reprimands, until he finally finds the right audience and gets the laugh he is looking for. After trying enough contexts, the same information finally found a place where it fit- and where it could perform some useful work (entertaining his buddies on a slow fishing day).
Cloud computing and the funny joke
The idea of cloud computing, promoted by Google, AOL and others, is to be able to create massive computing environments and with nearly unlimited information storage capacity. In fact, according to a recent Business Week article, one of Google's cloud architects asks prospective employees 'What would you do if you had a thousand times more storage?'
Of course the question behind that one is 'what would you do if you had a thousand times more information?' That's the promise of cloud computing-- nearly free, nearly unlimited processing and information storage capacity, available to everyone.
But there's another phenomenon that will emerge from cloud computing. As more information gets amassed in a few massive cloud infrastructures, the real question will be 'what would you do if you had a thousand times more contexts?'
Think of every piece of information as a key. And every context as a lock, behind which lies value of some sort. Many keys open more than one lock-- and different keys can reveal different amounts of value behind every lock. Plus, keys can be tried in combination to yield even more positive results. With a billion keys, and a billion locks, the real challenge becomes how to try every key in every lock, to see which ones unlock the most value.
That's what data mining does (sort of). But data mining usually involves someone pre-supposing the value they are looking for. Image if instead of data mining, we started doing value mining-- simply bringing together various bits of information from these massive clouds, and trying them out in every conceivable combination, matched up with every possible context, to see what value can be unlocked.
That's one of the possibilities of cloud computing-- imagine if any researcher could somehow get access to all the information in those clouds, no matter what form it could be in, but without risk to the providers and individuals who provided it? Here's an example: a healthcare researcher who can compare every blog posting, medical report and prescription purchase in a given geographic area to spot concentrations of illness or environmental risks, without having to know what illnesses they were looking for in the first place. Or the songwriter who can spot themes emerging from the musings of a million teenagers on blogs, personal pages and videoposts, and who can capture those raw feelings in a new song that provides an anthem to this audience?
The computing clouds should not just be places where information is stored. Hopefully they will become places where information is allowed to create its own unique values and unlock new ideas and new views of our shared world.
Someplace in the world, there a context where every joke is funny. With cloud computing, we have a chance to find all those contexts. And when we do, we can all smile a bit more.