Cloud Computing: All that is solid melts into the air?

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

After reading several articles mentioning ‘cloud computing’ including the NYTimes write up on $200 laptops, I began to notice how frequently the phrase is dropped in tech circles. With a little bit of investigation I began to grasp what this term means and realized that I have been cloud computing every day for years. Aren’t I cutting edge!?! Nevertheless, I am interested in the rhetoric of this geek-chic phrase.

To start with, cloud computing is a metaphor. It has nothing to do with weather patterns (although I like the idea of not being able to work on perfectly sunny days). But some of the definitions are still as nebulous as the metaphor suggests. Watch this video. 2.0 big wigs are asked, ‘what is cloud computing’. At times, the answers are about as concrete as whispy clouds on the horizon and the interviewees resemble children in the grass naming the cloud shapes – it’s a bunny, no, it’s a horsey! 

Maggie Fox, CEO of Social Media Group, gives the most concrete description. Most of the others skip defining what cloud computing is and move directly onto its benefits.

This video contains some interesting imagery

With the pre-cloud computing old-fashioned model, the narrator places down cut out servers that go between our site and our custumers. With the new hyped (his word) cloud computing, the narrator sets down fluffy cloud cut outs. What I am arguing is problematic, is that with the new 2.0 computing architecture, the material, physical body of technology is missing in the equation and has been happily disolved into the clouds.

I do not pretend to completely understand what cloud computing is, but from several sources, it seems to basically be outsourcing the jobs your harddrive and software used to do to large scale online resources like google docs or sales force. I think these are wonderful things. A $200 laptop could very likely become the key that will free me from my dungeon, most commonly known as the CCT computer lab. For all practical purposes, I have and will likely continue to welcome cloud computing technologies into my life with open arms.

What intrigues me about the phrase cloud computing is how it fits into many of the discourses of embodiment that I have been venturing into for my thesis research. The metaphor, cloud computing, rhetorically suggests that the material structure of computing has been dissolved into the ether. It resembles the fantasy of teleporting on Star trek. It also resembles when Professor of Robotics at Carnegie Mellon Hans Moravec, proposed transition from body bound human existence toward a cleaner more efficient consciousness free of the messy and vulnerable body. Morvak argues that human consciousness will one day be downloadable and freed from the burden of the flesh. (and by extension freed of the burden of mortality?)

Contesting these notions in her highly insightful and entertaining article, “Will the Real Body Please Stand Up?”, Allucquère Rosanne Stone celebrates technology but remains grounded in the fact that “No matter how virtual the subject may become, there is always a body attached… Historically, body, technology and community constitute each other” (451).

I write and store all my documents on google docs and managed multimillion dollar fundraising campaigns on I never once thought of these practices as particularly cutting edge, but I also never once considered ‘what’ they were. I never stopped to think about where my information was being stored. Wikipedia tells us that concealing the process is the purpose: “The cloud is a metaphor for the Internet and is an abstraction for the complex infrastructure it conceals.”

This is very efficient business but the dematerializing information and computing conceals complex material infrastructure. No information can exist without a medium to contain it. The metaphor of cloud computing hides the material reality of our day to day computing practices. It also suggests that information is ephemeral and can exist without any material structure.

In the long run what does this dematerialization signify… well that is probably more then I can handle in this post. But the popularity of this metaphor suggests that our society continues to maintain the illusion that information and medium are two separate and independent entities. But I’m sure there is another side to the argument. Ok computer geeks…. Your turn to clarify this novice.