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What is the Shape of the Could? A Review of A Prehistory of the Cloud

“The Cloud is silent, in the background, and almost unnoticeable…until something goes wrong.” (pp.IX)
A Prehistory of the Cloud departs from a few seemingly simple questions: What is the cloud? Where is the cloud? Here the cloud does not signify, of course, clouds above us, which can be seen when we lift our heads. Most cloud storage and computing services we are familiar with, such as the AWS, Google Cloud, Microsoft Azure, and Dropbox were setting off during the 2000s. After almost 20 years, the Cloud has become a part of people’s everyday life. It is so common that instructions on how to use these products are unnecessary. Nevertheless, returning to the questions posed by this book, the answers remain unclear.

The author, Tung-Hui Hu, was an engineer at Silicon Valley and is now a professor in the English department at the University of Michigan. He is also a poet and scholar. In order to illustrate the prehistory of the cloud and its applications before 2015, he divides this book into four chapters with each of them analyzing one particular subject: Internet infrastructure, virtualization, data center, and wars associated with the cloud. What is interesting about this book is that, occasionally, the theme of the cloud disappears, and things like heavy machinery, coarse industrial ruins, or space trash far away from the earth enter the scene. Apparently, they do not fit in the classic impression of lightness that we have on clouds, but all of them are “the shapes of the cloud”.

The Internet is not like a cloud that appears out of nowhere. At the beginning of this book, Hu leads his readers to explore the actual ruins of the Internet. He first draws our attention to the West Coast in America. In a desert where people no longer visit, an old railway track extends until it vanishes at the border of the land. Beneath the abandoned nineteenth century railroad, there is the fiber-optic cable, a product from the twentieth century. In 1978, Southern Pacific Railroad began to sell to corporate clients its railway signaling system. It kept transforming itself since then and finally established two telecommunication companies: SPRINT and Qwest. Given the fact that the old and the new coexist, we cannot understand the Internet without paying attention both to the scion and to the rootstock. That is why Hu uses the word “graft” to describe the structure of the Internet. The coexistence of the railway and the fiber-optic cable is an excellent example.

Most people consider ARPANET as the origin of the Internet when constructing its history. Even though the Internet comes from a military background, Hu considers that focusing solely on this perspective will leave the whole history of the Internet overwhelmed by the fear of and precaution against nuclear war. Established in 1968, the avant-garde art group Ant Farm was formed by Chip Lord , Doug Michels, and Curtis Schreier, who joined in later. All three members came from the architectural field. Their works like Truckstop Network and Media Van are mentioned in the book as examples of alternative possibilities of networks. If we confirm that the essence of the networks is the deliverance of messages and making communication, then how can we assert that the mail-system or social network constructed through light trucks and highway system is not a kind of network?

Chapter Two focuses on how computing can be realized in the scope of personal experiences and how time-sharing technology distributes computer resources to different users at the same time, creating an illusion of privacy and secrecy. However, the concept of “user” is not established in the early stages of these technologies. Different technologies create various connecting experiences, which reversely define varied ideas of users.

Hu introduces several technologies that share similar concepts with cloud computing before its birth. One of these technologies is time-sharing system. Developed in the 1950s, time-sharing system enables multiple users to share calculation resources by computers. It makes people feel as if they have their own computers, since computers were gigantic in size and so expensive that only universities and academic institutions could afford them. The first computer game in history Spacewar! was processed on a computer named “Programmed Data Processor-1” at MIT with the aid of time-sharing system to enable two players online.

By Kenneth Lu – Spacewar!, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2060215

When personal or home computers became prevalent in the 1980s, the term “time-sharing” decreased in popularity, with similar concepts gradually developing into cloud computing. Virtualization extends time-sharing technology and enables millions of users to share data centers constituted of thousands of hard disks. A dedicated server can process multiple softwares of virtual machines, which exist in the form of codes without any physical entity but can function as one. Practically speaking, virtual machines are favorable in many aspects, such as their efficiency in processing data and capability to build enclosed and safe development environments.

Hu compares Victorian sewage systems with virtualized digital technology. The former embodies urban planning and governing. The government builds pipes that stretch into each household so that domestic waste matters do not spread between families. Virtualized digital technology deals with privacy problems of shared computers better than time-sharing technology. It sends data and information to each user and reversely changes the users themselves by asking them to mind “digital hygiene” and protect their personal information so that they can prevent their computers from being hacked.

However, there is an essential difference in political ideology between the sewage system and the digital structure. “[…] liberalism would establish a boundary between public and private spaces, the economic system at work in the cloud, neoliberalism, seeks to subordinate the public sphere to the logic of the marketplace.”(pp.63) In the mid-1960s, virtualization was originally intended to be created as a kind of public facility, but this digital structure was all turned into commercially confidential information because the infrastructure is built by private companies.

One of the advantages of the cloud is disaster recovery, which is a great attraction for corporate clients, who are vastly concerned about the interruption of service because of sudden emergencies and damage to or leakage of the data. “Disaster recovery is twinned with the idea of Internet security: the former occurs after the disaster, and the latter attempts to preempt it.” Different features of cloud calculation urge us to imagine various possible disasters and threats to the data, which also correspondingly affect “the shape of the cloud.”

As an architectural form built to fight against air-raid, many bunkers are transformed into spaces to preserve data after they are no longer in use for war. Paul Virilio’s Bunker Archaeology (1967) is the main target that chapter three is in dialogue with. Bunkers create a perception of alerted and infinite wait. Hu argues that digital culture is also overwhelmed with words that describe the condition of wait: latency, slowdown, buffer, throttle, downtime, blockage…etc. In contrast, the real-time concept empties the sense of the present and envisions a future, which is brought by reloads of the pages and appearances of notifications.

The cloud is like a bunker for its user. This “survival machine” creates fear, even in a very minor sense, for terrible things to happen. However, the cloud space that seems to be infinite provides the feeling of being insured, protected, and saved. Browsers whose reloading we always eagerly wait for are just like windows of secret bunkers. If it seems proper to say the desire to connect everything through the cloud is a paranoid act, a desire named by architect Mark Wigley as “Network Fever”, then for Hu, treating the cloud as a bunker to protect data is an expression of melancholy.

Citing Freud, melancholy is the excessive mourning for the death of an intimate person or the loss of abstract concepts such as the ideal for life. Every medium dies, be it the widely used digital data format of “new media” now or analog backup preserved in a cave in a geologically stable area. They die for reasons such as a lack of software to decode them or machines that can read and play them.

This book, published in 2015, keeps reminding me of the concept of blockchain as a comparing target, even though the book itself does include blockchain at all. For long, data preservation and internet construction have been designed with the fear of and precaution against nuclear war, hoping to stay connected during the war or protect data from military destruction. If blockchain can be coined as “the Internet” for generations to come, its design and invention are developed far from the antagonistic framework of the Cold War. Instead, the key is to respond to problems such as governmental currency intervention, neo-liberal economic crisis, tempering of history, information blockage, and privatization of data by large companies.

In comparison to the form of centralized management of servers and hard disks in data centers, with the logic of blockchain, data and a certain blockchain are constantly preserved and back-uped maybe in someone’s garage, a computer in the library, or miners packed up in a secret factory. Is the anxiety of new media alleviated with this method or is it only a temporal comfort? What we can be sure of now is that we inherit the fear, paranoia, and melancholy of the pre-cloud era, and we have developed different mental states. What do the clouds look like in our time?

LEE Chia-Lin

LEE Chia-Lin graduated from the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, National Taiwan University, and the Institute of Contemporary Art & Social Thoughts, China Academy of Art. She is now pursuing a Ph.D. in Fine Arts at Taipei National University of the Arts. Her research focuses on the culture, media and art developed and created in the digital era. As the founder of ZIMU CULTURE, LEE also works on curatorial projects and publishes books.