Somewhere back in the mists of Internet history — 2010, say — the world was introduced to the concept of “streaming.” Instead of downloading music or movies to files that would clutter up our hard drives the way DVD cases used to clutter our shelves, that media could be streamed over the Internet — there when we wanted it, out of sight when we didn’t.
But where would we find the digital storage space for a seemingly infinite supply of entertainment? First of all, that was someone else’s problem. And anyway, it seemed like someone else had found a lot of space in the “cloud.” Our e-mails and Facebook profiles were there already; soon Google Docs and Dropbox would put pretty much everything else there, too. And it was free!
Well, as Tung-Hui Hu, a network engineer turned poet and assistant professor of English at the University of Michigan, reminds us in his new book, “A Prehistory of the Cloud,” nothing is free. Private companies spend billions of dollars stuffing warehouses full of servers and expend huge amounts of energy keeping them cool.
Nor is the cloud neutral political territory, with technological and ideological roots stretching back to the Cold War, when the military needed a communication network that wouldn’t fail even if many of its nodes and pathways were taken out by a nuclear bomb.
But how does this unseen history shape our day-to-day interactions with the cloud? Ideas spoke with Hu by phone. Below is an edited excerpt.
IDEAS: There seems to be a disconnect between what people perceive to be as the cloud and what it is in reality.
HU: Most people think of the cloud as something that was invented five years ago. They don’t really think of it as a real thing. There’s kind of this sense that our files live in a virtual space, and it’s over there. You drop your files onto this icon on the screen, then it goes away, you don’t have to think of it again.
IDEAS: Where is the cloud actually?
HU: A company called Southern Pacific Railroad learned in the 1970s that they could run fiber optic cable under the railroad tracks and could sell this capacity to other companies. They christened this network the Southern Pacific Railroad Internal Network. It became an acronym, SPRINT, and thus was born one of the big fiber optic carriers that we have now. This ultimate technology of the 19th century, the railroad, is physically layered with this ultimate technology of the 21st century, the fiber optic cable. The route that they take is exactly the same transcontinental route that people were trying to do in the 1860s.
[The cloud] is that place. It is these windowless buildings that you can train yourself to spot that usually have air conditioning units on the top. You can tell they’re not really meant for humans to work in, but meant for computers. It’s the trans-Pacific and trans-Atlantic undersea cables. It’s many of these places all at once. That’s the hardest thing about the cloud. People focus on the network or on the servers or on software because it’s actually hard to talk about all of these things at the same time.
IDEAS: What is missed when we think of the cloud in the abstract?
HU: The easiest place to see this is in its environmental impact. Greenpeace actually added up all the power that the cloud was using and determined it would be the fifth most power-hungry country in the world if we considered it a country. If we just think of it as existing no place, we ignore the real environmental problems. That’s the place to begin, but that actually isn’t the place we should end. There are real people that tend to the cloud and make it look tidy and clean. If you go on Facebook, you have a nicely curated set of images and newsfeeds from your friends. But actually there are, for example, Moroccan freelancers paid something like $1 or $2 an hour to look at really horrific things like people’s spattered limbs and crushed skulls. Their job is to take that out. Not only do we not see the people who are part of this structure, but we also lose track of the political stakes of that work.
IDEAS: How does the way the cloud is organized affect behavior?
HU: We don’t pay money anymore explicitly for a lot of services like e-mail or free space to run a blog. Our time is being bought and sold through advertisements. That’s why users are actually encouraged to spend time on the Internet. A user is only a user as long as they use stuff. The sure way to screw things up for companies is to not use at all.
I took a vacation the other week in rural Maine, and I had really lousy wireless. Every day, Facebook would send me a message that was like, “Hey, your friends have done 10 new things, and here are 10 people waiting for you to respond to them.” It’s this constant prodding for us to use things. LinkedIn does the same thing. You’re constantly forced to interact with people or you’re constantly forced to give feedback to the algorithms that are monetizing your data.
IDEAS: That urge to participate took an uncomfortable turn in 2011 when NATO was launching airstrikes against Moammar Khadafy in Libya.
HU: That is a really interesting moment. You have a manager in a Dairy Queen in Tucson, Ariz., who spends his free time at work looking at maps of Libya and going, “I think this one is a Khadafy target. I think this one is his communication center.” It’s no different than any of the other acts of crowdsourcing that you see out there. But the weird thing about this manager is he would tweet the coordinates to NATO, and a few hours later NATO would actually bomb the target that he identified.
So war itself has become something that can be crowdsourced, and everybody can be their own vigilante for the military, regardless of the side. There’s a sense that it’s sort of enjoyable to do this. It’s kind of a puzzle to solve. These are the kinds of skill that we’re all supposed to learn in university these days — how to navigate through big data. It’s not that far apart from these really small actions when we tag a photo on Facebook and make sure it’s matched up with the right person’s name. I’m not saying that by tagging a photo on Facebook that you’re somehow supporting the military, but it is the same kind of framework and the same kind of ideology.
Kelly O’Brien can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.