The “Cloud” Is Not a Cloud

One of the mysteries of the “digital age” is its lingo.  Weird new terms like “google” and “hypertext” are invented and rapidly become part of everyday speech.  Sometimes we know where, when, and by whom the new term was coined, oftentimes we don’t.  Like any new cultural phenomenon, the age of the computer and the Internet seems to spontaneously generate its own lexicon.  But it also is appropriating old terms for new meanings, “windows” and “files” (along with a file-folder shaped “icon”) being two examples.  Unlike the brand-new made-up names, appropriated words can often be deeply misleading.  There is one particular appropriated word gaining in popularity that misleads in an especially pernicious way:  “the cloud”.  Computer users are moving their data to the cloud in a big way, cloud computing is a major topic of presentations and conferences, and many newer electronic consumer devices are all cloud all the time, having no hard drives for data storage themselves.  But of course, there is no such thing as “the cloud”.

The use of the word “cloud” is pernicious because of its inaccuracy, for it perpetuates an already entrenched naïve view of digital technology in general and of the Internet in particular.  It enables end users, who often actually know very little about computers, software, or programming, to continue to think of the computers and the Internet in what are often metaphysical or religious terms, it allows prominent but ill-informed pundits to write what are essentially sermons of salvation on such things as how social networks will spread democracy around the globe, and it permits VIP’s and CEO’s of the computer world to wrap their latest minute “innovation” in glossy Christmas paper and pretty bows.  If everything is so grand and inevitable, why worry?  Be happy.

Someone a bit more in the know might say, well, it’s just a harmless metaphor; but as Lakoff and Johnson have shown, metaphors aren’t harmless.  They carry a lot of invisible baggage and can trigger strong but unconscious positive or negative responses in their users and listeners.  In its old usage, “cloud” refers specifically to those white, or sometimes very dark and roiling, things far above us in the sky.  They can be harbingers of rain, welcome shade from the hot sun, pretty arrangements at sunset.  Metaphorically, clouds have been associated with various gods, or have embodied human moods or feelings (such as being under a cloud of suspicion).  Always, however, it is their ineffable, intangible, ungraspable, airy and distant qualities that have dominated their metaphorical use.  To use the term “cloud” when talking about computing is to import those qualities into something that is anything but ineffable or airy.

There is no such thing as cloud computing.  This “cloud” is physical, material, and locatable right here on the ground.  When a computer user logs on to his or her cloud account, whether Google Files or Facebook, or any other of the many sites where one can upload and/or work on one’s data, he is sending well-understood signals from his computer, locatable on the desk and right at his fingertips, along fiber optic cables to a data center or server farm, perhaps in Utah or Virginia but certainly somewhere with a street address, where that data is stored on the provider’s servers, which are basically CPU’s stacked up by the thousands in each warehouse.  Even if the user is connecting wirelessly, she is sending a physical signal through the air to a nearby modem or cell tower, which receives the signal and forwards it to the server farm via fiber optic cables.  The physics of this operation is well understood, and the process of manufacturing, transporting, and installing the cables, switches, servers, and so forth is as tangible and physical as any industrial process can be.  There is nothing airy or intangible about a data center, and nothing picturesque about it either.

“Well, so what?”  I’ll tell you so what:  Carrying around the notion that there is such a thing as “the cloud” makes it easy to ignore or be blissfully unaware of what one is really doing and what its true meanings and impacts are.  One common misconception shared by many people is that computer technology is greener than older technologies and that it is the key to reducing our energy use, air pollution, and trash.  Smart young things believe their tablet computers signal their environmental awareness (rather like smart middle-aged things believe driving a hybrid, or even better, an all-electric car, reduces overall air pollution).   Many a corporation and university openly brags about “going paperless” as their contribution to a greener and cooler tomorrow.  But as a lengthy article in the New York Times of Sunday, September 23, 2012, makes clear, cloud computing is extremely wasteful of electricity. (See also this second article.) This is because there are a hell of a lot of data centers around the world, but also because they tend to run at far less than full capacity:  a significant percentage of the servers are “comatose,” meaning not actually performing any task but sitting idle but on, consuming electricity nonetheless.  Data centers use immense amounts of electricity for cooling, and they keep diesel generators on location to provide on-site electricity should a black-out occur.  So maybe the user sitting in his bedroom or at her kitchen table working on a laptop or a tablet is not in fact using much energy directly, but they are using a lot by proxy.  The data center company is paying the bill, but the individual at home is actually the one using that energy.  It is our expectations that are causing the waste of energy; we want instant access all the time, no buffering.  As the last sentence of the Times article puts it, “’We’re what’s causing the problem.’”  Or as Pogo said, “We have found the enemy, and he is us.”

Another common misconception about cloud computing is that it is intrinsically liberating.  Because people think of the cloud as segregated from the messiness of the real world, they believe that it affords them unfettered access to information and free-wheeling social association without barriers or interference by authorities or governments.  Hence all the hyperventilating recently about Facebook and Twitter revolutions.  But as Evgeny Morozov demonstrated in his book The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, the Internet is not segregated from the rest of the world and has no intrinsic moral or democratic value; it can be used for evil as well as good, and used as effectively by authoritarian regimes as by democratic ones.  Dictators no longer need secret police hunching outside your apartment in a van; they can access your Facebook or Twitter accounts or those of your “friends” and build up their own databases of information on potential threats to their regimes.  This is something Wael Ghonim, an organizer of the Tahrir Square protests in Egypt, discovered when he was arrested by the old regime’s secret police as he was walking along a street using his smart phone.  Somehow they knew that he was the actual creator of a Facebook page using a revolutionary martyr’s name rather than his own.  And as he said in an interview with the host of PBS’s “Fresh Air,” networking sites can aid in communication, but they cannot create social or political revolutions; it is people who do that.  “The revolution was on the streets. It was not on Facebook, it was not on Twitter.”  As an American media pundit of a liberal stripe, Terry Gross seemed all too focused on the supposed efficacy of Twitter while giving little attention to the more important fact that people had to put their bodies and lives on the line in a real space at a  real time to bring down the old regime.  As Ghonim reminded us, revolutions have occurred throughout history, since well before the Internet age.  One can think of the American and French revolutions of the 18th century and the Communist revolution that overthrew the czar at the beginning of the 20th.

Morozov also makes the point that today’s dictators and authoritarian governments are not Stone Age lowbrows—they have as much sophistication as the young on the streets and are able to harness digital technologies, such as face recognition software, to identify the individuals marching for freedom.  They are also smart enough to realize that if they allow their populations to distract themselves with digital entertainment they are less likely to be politicized.  The guy downloading porn in his dumpy apartment is not likely to rise from his sofa to protest the cringing inadequacy of his society.

It is not only authoritarian governments who use digital technologies to spy on, control, and distract their subjects.  Democratic governments are doing pretty much the same thing, aided and abetted by private corporations which not only spew out the mindless entertainment most people use their Internet connections for, but which also devise ever more sophisticated and intrusive ways of tracking their “clients,” often with government grants to aid in the development process.  When was the last time you cleared the cookies from your computer’s hard drive, to give just one very simple example.  These intrusions, like the insurance company that tracks your driving with a plug-in GPS monitoring system, are sold to us as conveniences, security, or financial savings, but they are not really intended for our good.  They are for the benefit of the corporations or government entities that create and use them.

In our naïveté, we are like the proverbial frog, who when placed in a pot of boiling water will immediately jump out, but if placed in a pot of cold water that is gradually warmed to boiling will not register the danger until it’s too late.  The Internet, the so-called “cloud,” has expanded and infiltrated our lives gradually, asking us to surrender only a little bit more privacy and independence as each “innovation” hits the market, until all those little bits have accumulated into a really big bite out of our lives.  Fortunately, we seem to be reaching a point when there is some push back from the real world.  I have already mentioned the New York Times article and Morozov’s important book.  One could also mention Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget, as well as The Revenge of Geography by Robert Kaplan.  The latter, while not focused on technology, nonetheless reminds us that geopolitics is about land, real mountains and rivers and deposits of oil, as well as actual ethnic identities, not virtual “friends,” and is not about keystrokes or downloads.

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  • Vivian  On September 24, 2012 at 4:20 AM

    Hi William really well written blog. I think now people who are learning what cloud computing will get a lot of insights from this Blog. I have been reading a lot about cloud computing and i came across this cloud ecosystem hub video thought id share it

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