One night last week I awoke to the sound of shattering glass. It was 2 a.m. and I was alone in my apartment, a ground-floor flat in a quiet London neighbourhood. Without stopping to think, I found myself charging out of bed to meet my intruder in a T-shirt. "No, no, no, you don't!" I howled, along with various other obscenities unprintable here. I did not pause to grab my phone or the cricket bat I keep by my bed precisely in case of such situations.
I had something more important than physical safety on my mind. Stupidly, recklessly, I'd left my laptop on my desk near the window and forgotten to close all the blinds. My laptop contains every single non-essential physical element that matters to me in the world: My photos, my music, my office records, contracts and contacts; all my work for the past 10 years, including two novels, three screenplays and countless pieces of journalism in infinite drafts and stages of research. My laptop is how I talk on the phone and watch movies and book flights and figure out directions from here to there. It's just a thing, of course, but it's the thing that makes a transient, freelance writer's life like mine possible.
But by the time I made it to my office, all that was left of the thief was a half-drawn window blind swaying over a puddle of broken glass. On my desk where the computer once sat was a huge heap of potting soil, the contents of an outdoor herb planter that had been used to smash the window. A pile of dirt where all my interior life used to be.
I called the police, the window repairman and my landlord, all of whom were kind enough to turn up in the middle of night. I dealt with the necessary crap, giving the cops a full report and offering the forensics detective a cup of tea, but all I could think of was my laptop, lost forever in the underworld of second-hand electronics. "Is there a pawn shop around here I should check?" I asked the policewoman. She looked at me liked I'd just asked her to hail me a horse-drawn carriage, then suggested I check Gumtree (a Craigslist-like service). "But don't worry," she added, "they probably have wiped your hard-drive clean by now anyway."
Eventually everyone left and I locked the window gates and went back to bed. Lying there wide awake I suddenly remembered the automatic back-up service my friend Jon had convinced me to sign up for a couple of months back. Everything on my computer would now be "in the cloud," he'd explained. At the time I wasn't even sure what he meant, but he seemed so emphatic that I couldn't refuse. I paid my $50 and signed up - what could it hurt? - and promptly forgot all about it.
The next day I bought a new laptop (thank you, insurance people) and Googled the cloud thingy. And lo - there was my life, all backed up in its weird digital brain. My music, my family vacation pics, the third draft of my second novel. I broke down and cried with relief.
My techie friends (like Jon) were unimpressed by this story. "Everyone's working in the cloud now," they said, "you'd be crazy not to."
My non-techie friends, when they heard the story of the break-in, gasped and said, "Did you have an external hard-drive?"
And then this week, Apple launched iCloud, a service that stores all your data, syncs it up with various devices and is free to all users. "We're going to demote the PC and the Mac to being just a device," Steve Jobs said in one of his famous keynotes speeches at the Worldwide Developers Conference this week. "We're going to move the digital hub, the centre of your digital life, in the cloud."
Apple described the iCloud on its website as a service that is integrated with apps and "stores all your content and wirelessly pushes it to all your devices." In essence, it's Big Brother, the National Archives, your family photo album and God combined in one.
From where I stand today (day four of file restoration) the cloud is a small miracle. But it's also creepy. It means that, instead of storing things on your computer's brain, you store them in the ether. This, in turn, means that the ether - the Big Brother eye - has constant access to read and record what's in your computer. It is the next great step - if not the logical conclusion - in the digital era's invasion of personal privacy. But it is also admittance of the great Buddhist truth: That attachment to material objects is hopeless. It is death. Like notebooks and external hard drives and books and CDs and photo albums, the quill pen and my laptop. Dead, gone, stolen.
But the ideas, the thoughts, the stories, continue and are stored, first in the culture - think of T.S. Eliot's intertexuality, Northrop Frye's Great Code - and now, quite literally, in the cloud.
The truth of course, is that I'd really like my stuff back. I gave the police my serial number and I'll take a look on Gumtree. In the meantime (which will probably be forever and ever) I'm perfectly content to live in the cloud.