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Public Culture

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The Digital Cloud and the Micropolitics of Energy

Allison Carruth

What strikes you immediately is the scale of things. The room is so huge you can almost see the curvature of Earth in the end. And it’s wall to wall, . . . racks and racks and racks of servers with blinking blue lights and each one is many, many times more powerful and with more capacity than my laptop. And you’re in the throbbing heart of the Internet. And you really feel it. . . . Here was the ephemeral made real.
—Steven Levy at a Google data center, quoted in Steve Inskeep, “The Brain of the Beast”

The images and stories that translate the technical structure of networks into lay terms lean heavily on ecological metaphors: we have server farms and the hive mind, mountains of data and streaming content. Within this array of high-tech metaphors, the most ubiquitous of all is the cloud. Reporting on a recent unprecedented visit to a Google server farm (or data center), journalist Steven Levy disturbs the light and airy image of a digital cloud by taking readers into “the throbbing heart of the Internet” (see figs. 1–2). There he encounters the walls of concrete warehouses, endless racks of servers, a morass of electrical circuitry, and water-hungry cooling systems, all of which, in his terms, make “the ephemeral real.” Yet even so, the pull of metaphor directs one’s attention away from the materiality of information. As Levy imagines the Internet in not ecological but biological terms—with the data center as its “throbbing heart” and the “blinking blue lights” of servers as its nervous system—the real fades back into the ephemeral.

From technology news to corporate infographics, the vision of the Internet as a green space at once everywhere and nowhere in particular is pervasive. Consider an infographic titled “Accelerating Cloud in Asia Pacific,” which depicts the cloud as a verdant, volcanic island suspended in the air.1 Commissioned by Microsoft and published on a tech blog (evidently without permission), this graphic renders a cell phone as a rectangular mountain meadow and displays bar charts variously as rays of sunshine, hot air balloons, alpine skis, and rainbows. This floating island image also envisions the cloud as “green” by suggesting that cloud computing offers a harmonious marriage between cost savings and energy savings for the companies that move their ostensibly less energy-efficient networks off-site. With the Microsoft infographic in view, it bears mention at the outset that everyday parlance blurs the distinctions between individual and organizational uses of the cloud—or between consumer platforms such as iCloud, Dropbox, Facebook, and Google Drive and fee-based cloud computing services such as outsourced data storage and so-called virtual applications. If the cloud has become synonymous with all Internet-based platforms that store and deliver content from remote servers, cloud computing refers only to “subscription-based or pay-per- use services that, in real time over the Internet, extend existing IT [information technology] capabilities” for firms and institutions (Greenpeace 2011: 5). Whether business-to- business (B2B) or consumer-centered, however, the metaphor of the cloud obliterates not just the Internet’s physical structure but also sedimented mean- ings of the word cloud.2 Those meanings include the haunting images and disastrous consequences of mushroom clouds since the United States detonated the first atomic bombs during World War II (a history that Elizabeth DeLoughrey’s essay [in this issue] shows persists into the present and with particular force in the Pacific Islands). They also include long-standing idiomatic uses that invoke storm clouds to convey experiences of fragility, impermanence, haziness, concealment, darkness, danger, gloom, and anxiety—connotations that take on profound weight in the era of climate change, with its attendant increase in volatile weather and severe storms. It was only in 1989 that this word, which originated in English before the Norman Conquest, took on the sense of “a network operated by a telecommunications service provider, used in routing data” (OED Online 2013a). That multinational corporations like Microsoft and Google represent the digital cloud as an ethereal system for communication and connection, itself without a footprint, seems all the more striking when one takes note of the first and now obscure meaning of cloud: “a mass of rock, earth, or clay” (ibid.).

The preponderance of ecological metaphors in how we speak about digital technology and networked computing masks, willfully in some cases, what is an energy-intensive and massively industrial infrastructure. Nicole Starosielski (2011a; 2011b: 2), in her research on the undersea fiber-optic cables that surface at coastal sites such as San Luis Obispo, Fiji, and Oahu’s west shore, has been the first media scholar to document at length this infrastructure to discern the “fundamental materiality of our media systems.” Her project focuses on conflicts between “global cable systems and local cultural practice” over these so-called critical infrastructures, a term that a US report published on WikiLeaks coined to signal the importance of undersea cables to US national security interests—a militarized paradigm that the National Security Agency (NSA) PRISM data monitoring program no doubt embodies (Starosielski 2012: 38, 53–54).

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Notes

  1. The infographic can be viewed here: farm6.static.flickr.com/5107/5692321314_5886bed37e _z.jpg.
  2. My thanks to Claire Bowen for helping me think through this dimension of the digital cloud’s rhetoric and iconography.

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Public Culture is a reviewed interdisciplinary journal of cultural studies, published three times a year in Fall, Winter, and Spring for the Institute for Public Knowledge by Duke University Press. The journal's full archives are available online at Dukejournals.org.

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