Live in the Cloud

live in the cloud photo
CC BY 2.0. karindalziel

karindalziel/CC BY 2.0

For much of their history, personal computers have been focused on local data and computational power. Everything had to be on hand like proverbial stockpiles ready for an enemy siege.

Then the Internet and cloud computing came along. Suddenly, the things you thought had to be at your disposal all the time--programs, data, media--became accessible from the humblest device. Computers became less independent fortresses and more homes in an interdependent village.

In many ways, the American way of life has been designed around the old computer model. We insisted that everything be accessible all the time on our local drive, ahem, our home--whether it was providing guest accommodations for four, place settings for twenty-person dinner parties or camping gear for the whole family. Cheap credit, homes and consumer goods allowed us to do this.

The problem with this approach--whether applied to a computer or a home--is that it necessitates more money, hardware, heating, cooling, cleaning, maintenance, upgrading and headache.

Last month, I talked about “Your Tiny Dream Home,” my efforts at LifeEdited and the rise of the micro-unit home. Looked at from the perspective of having all of your life on your proverbial hard-drive, this movement makes no sense. There’s no space for your backup towel set or your Doobie Brother bootleg collection.

But what if we started approaching life from a cloud-computing perspective? What if we saw our homes like netbooks or tablet computers, i.e. minimal, efficient pieces of hardware, just big and powerful enough to access the unlimited potential of the web? What if we stored most of our stuff in the cloud?

Technology is making cloud living possible. It’s easily connecting those who need with those who have. Need a car? Book a Zipcar on your phone. Need a fancy dress? Get one from Rent the Runway. Need toys for your kids? Subscribe to Babyplays or Toyconomy. Have something you want to offer your neighbor? Post it on Ohsowe or Want make some dough renting your video equipment? Go to Snapgoods. It’s even possible to cloud-source real estate. Need an office? Get a membership at a coworking space. Need a guest room? Go to Airbnb.

This does not mean we need to give away all of our possessions. Someone who cooks all the time needs their own set of cookware. A photographer needs his own camera. But there’s a big difference between owning all things all the time and owning some things all of the time. Cloud living actually allows you to access all things some of the time.

While this way of life might seem more time consuming and expensive, try doing some calculations. Let’s say you average fifteen hours monthly shopping for, maintaining, cleaning and moving stuff and space you could replace with above solutions. And say your time is worth $20/hour. That’s $3600/year. Or think about the amount of square footage occupied by storage and seldom used spaces. Let’s say that space totals 200 square feet, and your rent is $2/sq ft/month or $300/sq ft to purchase--or an extra $400/month or $6K on your purchase price. None of this includes heating or cooling expenses.

Then there are the harder to quantify, but nonetheless huge expenses. What is the true environmental cost of having all things all the time? What’s the cost of being tethered to a high overhead lifestyle?

Dave Bruno brilliantly put it, “Stuff is not passive. Stuff wants your time, attention, allegiance. But you know it as well as I do, life is more important than the things we accumulate." Living in the cloud allows us to have the stuff we need, when we need it, without the burden and anxiety that we will lose all our local data. And in the lightness of living in the clouds, we have the mental and physical space to focus on those more important things.

Graham Hill founded TreeHugger in 2004 with the goal of driving sustainability mainstream. Graham is also the CEO of LifeEdited, a project devoted to living well with less.