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The cloud does not exist

It is hard to do away with metaphors, and we shouldn’t always want to. But some metaphors are better than others. That’s why it’s always useful to pause when a metaphor becomes entrenched, and look critically at what work it is doing. What is the metaphor making us believe, and what is it hiding from sight?

A metaphor that very much deserves such critical treatment is the idea that our files and software are in ’the cloud'.

What is going on here? “The cloud is made up of servers in data centers all over the world,” you can find on the website of Cloudflare, one of the big players in cloud computing. “Moving to the cloud can save companies money and add convenience for users,” they write.

But they would write that, wouldn’t they? They’re after all a ‘cloud’ company.

Photo by Kaique Rocha:

Photo by Kaique Rocha

The cloud and the manifest image

It seems to have been back in 1996 when the term ‘cloud computing’ was coined. It was meant to describe a form of distributed computing. The idea behind distributed computing is that the processes behind your application or software, need not be on your own computer, but can be run elsewhere, at least in part. These processes can be bits of computation, or involve file storage and network management. But if not on your computer, where then do these processes take place? They’re in the cloud. Or so we’re supposed to think.

To use ’the cloud’ as this unspecific and somewhat esoteric reference to the location of where these processes take place has proven tremendously powerful. The idea that you can store your data in ’the cloud’ is by now more cliché than fresh metaphor.

‘The cloud’ has become part of the manifest image of twenty-first century culture. The term ‘manifest image’—itself a metaphor—was coined by the philosopher Wilfred Sellars. By using it I mean that ’the cloud’ has become part of how people understand computers in everyday practice. Recently I was on a government website that recommended to make safe backups of your personal data in ’the cloud.’ If an idea has reached government, it must be established indeed, right?

Unpacking a metaphor

What is the metaphor of ’the cloud’ making us believe? It’s always hard to unpack the imagery of metaphor in words, but I think it’s at least this. That there is a massive virtual world somehow hovering over all of us, just as the meteorological clouds in the sky. ‘The cloud’ is a common resource, a phenomenon, something that transcends human activity or intention. Moreover, the metaphor makes us believe ’the cloud’ is a phenomenon all of us have access to, almost as if it was a recently discovered piece of nature.

I think we can even be more specific. Talking about ’the cloud’ gives the idea that we are dealing here with a technologically advanced version of the commons. The idea of the commons is often used to describe “the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society, including natural materials such as air, water, and a habitable Earth.” Calling something a commons typically implies that it is a collective resource, something that belongs to us all: the fields, the oceans, the clouds.

Someone else’s computer

It sounds dreamlike, ethereal, as Rebecca J. Rosen wrote in the Atlantic. But when we talk about ’the cloud,’ ‘we are not talking about mist-like data hanging out in the ether, but massive computer servers, powered by generators, cooled by air conditioners, and stored in warehouses. More mechanical than magical.’

And I would add, more proprietary than communal. What people keep on calling ’the cloud’ does not belong to us all. It is far from a collective resource.

Whenever you put something in ’the cloud’, just say out loud to yourself that you’re putting it on someone else’s computer. This is a popular trope on Hacker News (a virtual water cooler for people working in tech). A quick search through the archives of Hacker News shows how pernicious the metaphor has become. Even though typically the forum users are critical of the metaphor, the term ’the cloud’ nonetheless gives you over 18000 hits on Hacker News alone. It shows how hard it is to escape the manifest image of a time.

‘The cloud’ is not neutral territory, but exactly the opposite. It is part of the hostile environment of for-profit data-mining. Alongside fossil fuels and health care, cloud-computing is a key site of capitalist economic expansion. It’s where your computer is turned into someone else’s source of revenue. This is what the metaphor of ‘cloud computing’ is hiding from sight. The data-centres you upload your photos to, the server that runs your scripts or software, is not just anyone’s machine. It’s most likely a machine owned by one of the monopoly players Amazon, Microsoft, Google, and Apple.

To be clear, I’m not opposed in principle to making money by offering computing services. But I am opposed to trying to pass off a privately owned and for-profit infrastructure as a shared and communal resource. It is not. There is no cloud. There’s just a clever way of making a lot of cash doing things that people could have (and should have) arranged publicly and communally amongst themselves.

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