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 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." 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.

[. . . .]

The metaphor of the cloud obliterates not just the Internet’s physical structure but also sedimented meanings of the word cloud. 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 [. . .] 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." 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."

Published in Public Culture, 26.2 (2014): 339-364