Learning and working environments

Sitting in Tony Hirst’s mashup talk today, I was thinking about the tension between two fundamental approaches to creating a (computery) working – and learning – environment for yourself.

The first approach – the on-the-edge option, in Danny O’Brien’s terms – is to customise an individual machine: cosmetic things like changing the wallpaper, usability tweaks like arranging icons and elements to suit the way your mind works; and installing the software tools you use a lot.

The second approach – the in-the-cloud option – is to use online services you can get to from any machine that has a browser.  This way, you make do with the not-quite-rightness of any individual machine but can get to your stuff ‘in the cloud’, from anywhere.

These are in tension, and what you can do with both options changes both ways.  Web Bookmarks/Favourites is a good example – originally, you could only get at yours from your particular machine.  Then along came Delicious and you could get at them from any machine, with a bit of fuss.  And now browsers like Firefox understand such services and you can get the best of both worlds: bookmarks you can get at from anywhere but are neatly integrated in to your particular browser.  Or the worst of both worlds: bookmarks that live on someone else’s server (they have control, you might not always be able to get at them), and you still have to fiddle to make each machine you use work properly.

Richard Stallman is very suspicious of the cloud and would counsel you to keep your data where you control it – meaning a machine of yours (running a free – not just open source – operating system).  But the in-the-cloud option seems to save so much time and fuss: I don’t have to worry about all that setting up and customisation.  Perhaps that’s just the price of freedom and I’m not paying it.