The stuff beneath the cloud

The physical location of the Internet has always fascinated me, so I’ve been enjoying reading [amazon_link id=”0262029510″ target=”_blank” ]A Prehistory of the Cloud[/amazon_link] by Tung-Hui Hu (a network engineer turned English professor). The first half of the book is pretty much entirely about the physical infrastructure and the mismatch between our idea of ‘the cloud’ as something dematerialised operating to new social/political rules and its reality in cables and buildings in specific places. The introduction starts: “A multi-billion dollar industry that claims 99.999 percent reliability breaks far more often than you’d think because it sits on top of a few brittle fibres the width of a few hairs.” It goes on to say that the idea of the cloud as a metaphor for society or organising principle for the economy is sometimes uncomfortably at odds with the material, technological platform. Indeed, he points out, the cloud was responsible for 2 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2008, since when there has been a rapid increase in the number of data centres.

[amazon_image id=”0262029510″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]A Prehistory of the Cloud[/amazon_image]

The book then starts with the geography of US fibre optic cables, laid under old railroad tracks: an old-economy, centralised network beneath the cloud as “a vision os globalization that follows the dictates of a multinational corporation – a coalition of geographic arease that move capital and resources through the most efficient path.” We have the impression of the internet as a decentralized network, but it is not – the idealised distributed network described in a famous 1962 article by Paul Baran was never built. The idea that the network got its shape because of the threat of nuclear war is a kind of ‘how he leopard got its spots’ [amazon_link id=”1405279613″ target=”_blank” ]Just So[/amazon_link] story. “Virtually all traffic on the US Internet runs across the same routes established in the 19th century.” (The same is true in the UK, with the east and west coast spines.) Interoperability via IP has only increased the concentration of power, the book argues. Six telcos control the US internet; it is fewer in the UK. Yet there is, “A collective desire to keep the myth alive despite evidence to the contrary.” This chapter ends with an intriguing section on the inherent paranoia of seeing the world through a network lens. If the system is a logical construction overlaid on a physical network, anything and everything can become part of it: the cloud has nebulous edges. Therefore anything and everything – or everyone – can cause breaks or errors.

The second chapter discusses time sharing and virtualization in the cloud – the creation of the illusion that we have our own private part of it. The book presents this is part of a shift away from waged labour toward a flexible economy with a nebulous boundary between paid and unpaid: “By positioning users as intimate partners of the computer, time sharing yoked users to a political economy that made users synonymous with their usage and allowed them (or their advertising sponsors) to be tracked, rented or billed.” The concept of multi-tasking developed out of time share computers, and now refers to flexible working more generally. “Real time actually functions as an ideology of economic productivity.” I am intrigued by the link between time and productivity – not new of course; think of EP Thompson’s famous article about industrial time keeping. Still, time spent using the computer is the work time now to be tracked. “The underlying logic of freeware capitalism is consumption – of time.” The chapter goes on to discuss the privacy debate as the result of the transformation of what had been envisioned as a public utility into a set of private ones, or gated communities, albeit only brought about by virtualization software. The book argues that concerns about privacy contribute to the logic of (dread word) “neoliberalism.”

The n-word put me off quite a lot, as it seems a pretty empty concept, and the third chapter vanishes down the rabbit hole of critical theory, although I like (again) its preoccupation with the built structures of the internet, the data centres – some in old military bunkers. “Computers, like horses, overheat when worked hard.” However, the chapter is about the links between cloud computing and the surveillance state. The basic point is the re-emergence (as if it ever went away) of the claims of sovereign territories and state power over the internet.

With the final chapter the book re-emerges from its rabbit hole, opening with a section on the use of big data as a tool of power. He notes: “Targetted marketing came out of the Eisenhower era science of geodemography … GIS was a by-product of the military’s need to convert populations intro targettable spaces.” The chapter argues that opting out of the connected world is nearly impossible, so we ought to start by acknowledging its structural inequalities of power. “The cloud is a subtle weapon that translates the body into usable information.” Well, everything, perhaps. Airbnb turns housing into a housing cloud; we have car clouds drifting around major cities, and labour markets that deliver “humans as a service.” Although I certainly do not see the world through the prism of neoliberalism (which no doubt confirms me as a neoliberal, as if being an economist wasn’t enough to do so), I found this book a very thought-provoking essay about the economic and political underpinnings of our connected lives. We surely need to have more discussion about the ownership of ‘the cloud’, its physical reality and energy consumption, and the political power that flows from its roots in those old railroads.

3 thoughts on “The stuff beneath the cloud

  1. I’m reading the book right now and I also like it a lot. As a computer security person I am pleasantly surprised by the view from the other side – from the literary criticism side. The strength of the book is also it’s weakness. A lot of interesting connections are made but the mechanisms behind the connections are not always explored – for example where data-bunkers are interpreted through the postmodern, and sometimes ludicrous ideas of Virilio. But I enjoy the free flowing associative style. For a less poetic and more (boring) feet-on-the-ground read I can advise “Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet” and “The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires”. For a similarly pleasant and a bit more solid experience I can advise “The Geek’s Chihuahua” by respectively Andrew Blum, Tim Wu and Ian Bogost.

    • I agree with you about the lack of detail on mechanisms. Thankyou for the other titles. How could anyone resist ‘The Geek’s Chihuahua’? As a competition person I read Tim Wu’s book and think it’s excellent.

  2. … oh, and if you want to explore the “rabbit hole” without getting sucked into it then I can recommend “Kittler and the Media” by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young

    This is a pleasant and clear read about a very complex (and probably unclear) media-theorist. This supports my pet-theory (probably wrong) that you should always stick to the secondary literature and ignore the primary literature 🙂

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