Life in the cloud seems… overrated

You can call me cynical but the latest digital revolution – putting your life in the cloud where you interact with it using devices – seems overrated to me.

You know what I mean; if you’re a member of the tech industry, the latest major trend is cloud computing. This is where all of your data is stored in various companies’ cloud computing database and you interact with it through devices like tablets, smart phones and PCs (laptops/desktops, not necessarily Microsoft OS’es). I am exaggerating, but the hype surrounding it makes it sound like this is going to be greatest thing in the history of the computer! Get ready for it! It’s going to be amazing!


I’m not going into a lot of detail here, but you’re smart readers. You know what I mean. I’ve saving time to get to my real point.

All this talk about life in the cloud… I have real doubts that it in real life it will live up to its greatness.

Why do I say this?

Last week, my wife and I visited her family in Taiwan. She lives here in the US and speaks English but speaks Taiwanese with her parents who can also speak English. They speak English with me, but Taiwanese with each other. Last fall, they retired and moved back to Taiwan where it is cheaper (outside of Taipei where the housing costs are worse than most of the US).

I’ve tried learning a little Taiwanese but it is very difficult. I was also learning Mandarin for a few weeks before I left (also difficult). The problem is:

  1. Unless you spend a lot of time in the country where it is the native language, you will never pick it up well enough to converse.

    They say that for English speakers, Chinese, Japanese and Korean are the hardest languages to learn and it could take around two years.


  2. There are not a lot of resources to learn it.

    This is important: Taiwanese != Mandarin. They are not the same language and they are not mutually intelligible. Even though Mandarin is the official language of Taiwan, most of the population also speaks Taiwanese. There are a lot of resources (books, learning apps on my tablets, translation sites) available for Mandarin, but not for Taiwanese. The population of Taiwanese speakers is perhaps 20 million which is why there isn’t that much.

  3. Mainland China’s writing system is Simplified Chinese which is what I was learning (I was also trying to learn Mandarin). By contrast, Taiwan uses Traditional Chinese.

    In the 1950’s, mainland China converted Traditional Chinese to Simplified Chinese in order to make it easier for the population to learn. However, Taiwan did not. While some characters are the same, many are different. Thus much of the time I spent learning Simplified Chinese did not help that much in Taiwan.

My wife, in-laws and other members of her extended family were nice enough to speak English to me, but with each other they spoke Taiwanese.

They say that communication is 7% verbal and 93% non-verbal (part body language and part tone-of-voice). Well, let me tell you, that’s completely false. I am good at observing body language and when my relatives were talking to each other I absolutely did not understand 93% of what was going on.

Perhaps if you are observing others this quote is true, but once you are part of the conversation and seated at the table, that 7% verbal communication is the most important part by far! I could follow basically nothing of what was being said. Sure, I can tell the emotions of what’s going on – sometimes funny, sometimes concern, sometimes curiosity. But that’s a far cry from taking part in a conversation. I know that most of the chatting is about regular family things – who’s working where, who’s neglecting what, who’s being irresponsible (you know, gossip – the thing we all do yet all say we revile), but I was not apart of what was being discussed. I could only sit and watch.

Out on the streets, I could tell what things were:

  • I could tell what food stores were
  • I could tell the street signs
  • I understood the food vendors

But in terms of advertisements and exact messages, I could read almost nothing. All of the symbols in Mandarin I knew already didn’t show up often except for water, 水 (that sign was everywhere and I never figured out why); fish, 魚; beef, 牛; meat, 肉; man, 男; woman, 女; and good, 好. But this amounted to 1% of all the symbols I saw. Imagine reading this blog post and understanding only 1% of all the words.


And therein lies my disconnect.

I expected to be able to understand very little conversation or read very little. Yet I had this vague hope in my mind that technology would help me. Why did I think this? Because somehow I had the idea that life in the cloud changed everything! Why would I think that? It’s not a conscious decision, it’s something I had to have picked up somewhere and it must be from advertising and the reinforced message of having lived and worked in tech for 10 years.

Yet technology was basically useless.

For one thing, my phone’s data plan works in the United States only. If I try to use data overseas, I get charged a ridiculous amount. Can I afford it? Yes. Will I pay for it? NO!

For you see, even though it’s not logical, I am psychologically averse to going through the trouble of getting additional communication devices (phones) for something I use so infrequently (going overseas). I know there are ways around this, but there are deep seated cognitive “defects” in my brain for loss-aversion that prevent me from doing it or trying to work around it.

It seems that technology’s “Life in the cloud is great” belief assumes you have Internet connectivity everywhere. Well, I don’t. And if you don’t, then what?

Secondly, even if you have a translation app like I did on my phone that works offline, it isn’t very good for east-Asian languages. Using the translator app on my phone it has Norwegian, Russian, Swedish, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian, German and Simplified Chinese available for download. As I explained above, Simplified Chinese != Traditional Chinese. I tried using it anyways and the result was worthless. There wasn’t a single instance of me pointing my phone at a line of text and having it translate something intelligible back to me. It was all a bunch of gobble-de-gook.

Every. Single. Time.


There was a time when I thought that the major languages like the ones that are available for offline download were the most important ones. I still think that, but the smaller languages are also still very important for two reasons:

  1. Communication – not everybody can speak the major languages.

  2. Cultural preservation – I don’t think it’s a good thing to be losing smaller languages. Cultures are important, language is one of those things that preserves it and losing them loses a cultural identity. I don’t think that people moving to the main languages of a couple dozen worldwide is a good thing.

Basically, if I want to learn a foreign language and culture, then I need to learn the language and culture. I can take a class, buy some books, learn on the web, buy software like Rosetta Stone, download some apps, and converse with native speakers. There’s really no way around it (short of having a translator). In other words, I need to do this the old fashioned way.

But here’s the point – I don’t need my life in the cloud for that. Sure, the cloud helps. I downloaded a bunch of apps onto my iPad from the Cloud. There are ways to use Skype to help practice with native speakers. I can browse Amazon book reviews to see which ones are the best ones for learning languages.

But all of that stuff existed before the “life in the cloud revolution” took place. And now that it’s being sold as the next big thing, I didn’t find that it helped me in my real life for something new. This causes me a lot of cognitive dissonance and personal conflict because I work in an industry that is trying to get everyone to move to the Cloud, and I am paid to sell that vision.

I guess that’s the disconnect I’m having a hard time articulating. It’s true that maybe I’m probably doing things wrong. Sometimes I feel like I’m too dumb to use technology the most efficient way possible.

I wonder if anyone else feels the same way?

Comments (3)
  1. Brian says:

    interesting article…  

    I think we (americans/english) speakers underestimate many of the challenges you mention.

    I like to think I'm bilingual – spent 2 years in Germany, 20 years ago.  I can still read it, carry on "gossip" conversations, but can't even touch technical things, politics, etc.  

    Anyways, I've been enjoying a blog by a young guy learning languages

    I think you'd be interested in how he's doing things, take a look.  (I'm in no way affialiated, he's just on my blog reader list just like you.)

  2. Anonymous says:

    I stumbled on this post to get to know what's the hype with cloud computing about. I decided to comment not on cloud computing but the Chinese language you find difficulties in learning.

    Being a Chinese myself I can't really read Chinese (only simple characters) since I'm English educated. I'm not residing in China nor have I been there. However, I know their traditions, lifestyle, culture, etc. The Chinese language is a little special compared to other languages in the world.

    There's really no such thing as "speaking Chinese". There are many dialects in China, one being Mandarin which is used most commonly. It is the official dialect therefore when someone mentions "speaking Chinese", he/she most probably mean "speaking Mandarin".

    Other popular dialects are Cantonese (common in Hong Kong), Hokkien (originated from Fujian, a province in China), Hakka and more than a few dozens other dialects in China.

    A particular dialect usually originates from a certain province in China.

    Now when you mentioned Taiwanese language, it's actually a variation of the Hokkien dialect. A language consists of the verbal part and written part. In Chinese language, the verbal part consists of many different dialects but using one unified written language. All dialects are using the same set of Chinese characters. So, a Cantonese speaker might not understand what a Hokkien speaker is saying, but if the Hokkien speaker writes it down onto a piece of paper and hand over to the Cantonese speaker, the Cantonese speaker might be able to read and understand. Therefore the character 水 (water) applies to all dialects. It's just that it is pronounced differently. In Mandarin it is pronounced as "shui", in Cantonese "sui", in Hokkien "jui".

    That is why you can't buy books or any written materials in Mandarin or Taiwanese because the written part in the Chinese language is the same. Only the verbal part is different, so if you want to learn Hokkien/Taiwanese buy some tapes and listen and learn.

    Chinese characters consists of many strokes, just like our alphabets are made up of strokes too. "A" with 3 strokes and "I" with 1 stroke. Sometimes simple Chinese characters are made up of too many strokes until someone came up with the Simplified version which contains less strokes for ease of writing. Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese are exactly the same semantically. So a Traditional character 龍 has the same exact meaning and pronunciation as its Simplified counterpart 龙 which means "dragon". The only difference is just the number of strokes.

  3. Jason Law says:

    Not all Traditional Chinese characters have their simplified version. Some traditional characters are already simple enough to write therefore their Simplified counterpart just borrow the characters as they are. For example, the character/word for water 水 has few enough strokes therefore it is written in the same way for both Traditional and Simplified. If one is taught only to read/write in Simplified, he/she might not able to understand its Traditional counterpart.

    I'm sorry for being off topic here. I hope what I've explained might ease your learning in the Chinese language a little.

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