What is the Cloud vs What Existed Before?

“There’s a universe of millions of people who are behind the scenes, programming and connecting, building connections and building computers that make all of this happen. But it’s become a magical land.’ Michael Winterson

What is the Cloud vs What Existed Before? is the first chapter in a six-part series containing interviews, abstractions, recordings and narratives composed in a bid to ask questions around the complexity of media infrastructure. The people interviewed have all kindly volunteered their time to meet and talk with us for many hours. The sites we visited include subsea network nodes, data centres, bitcoin facilities and super computers. This first episode follows two industry veterans as they trace their histories of the Cloud. As is the case with all of the chapters in this series, the audio and video material is almost entirely captured from the field recording trips. All musical composition or animated abstraction is a result of working with these original source materials in an attempt to rematerialize the internet through audiovisual means. We take the sound of the species as seriously as the visual spectacle and we ask that viewers do the same by listening with good speakers or headphones.

Credit: Michael James Lewis

It’s Saturday morning, I’m in bed, just woken up. An extra couple of hours would have been welcome but the sun is bearing down on the bedroom window and the room temperature is increasing fast. I reach pass the glass of water on the side table and grab my phone. Fifteen minutes pass and I’ve looked sequentially through the BBC Sport App, The Guardian App, my main Twitter feed, recommended images and video on Instagram and all of my bundled email accounts within the Gmail App. I don’t even have a Facebook profile or Snapchat so I saved five minutes there. I was a late convert to smartphones compared to most of my other middle class Londoner friends. I saw their iPhone obsessions, and didn’t want it to take over my life. But it was clear how satisfying, comforting and addictive it would inevitably become. I bought one in April 2012 and almost overnight this habituated story of waking and browsing began. Did I say Saturday? I meant, Monday, or Wednesday, or any day. The only time my phone is physically connected to anything is whilst I sleep, its lithium ion battery filled with electrical charge via National Grid, or from time-to-time when I transfer music files from one of my other, larger computers (also wired into National Grid). The proliferation of wireless signals, which have evolved from instrumentalising the electromagnetic spectrum of Hertzian space in order to transmit ghostly packets of digitally encoded signals through the air between transmitters and receivers have made my experience of exchange with media infrastructure – ‘the material sites and objects involved in the local, national, and/or global distribution of audiovisual signals and data’[1] –appear as ethereal, immaterial, and of little impact. This space has crucially become ‘the interface between electromagnetic frequencies and human experiences’ according to cyborg anthropologists Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby where ‘Hertzian space is a holistic view of the electronic device and its cultural interactions’.[2] There is clearly a significant disconnect between the short-range interactions of wireless-ness and the long-range vectors of a global media infrastructure. Perhaps a historical tracing of this network may provide guidance towards understanding how the break between the physical and virtual occurred. Perhaps conversations with those who actually work on the material sites of media infrastructures may help us make sense of who or maybe even what it is that we are interacting with each time we casually tap or swipe in bed in the morning.

Within the course of a little over a century, electronic and subsequently digital technology has pushed from exchanging messages through paper based documentation, ships, steam trains and horses, to planetary scale digital communication networks that project digital messages around the entire planet in milliseconds, and yet none of this seems extraordinary. How did this physical cable network spanning the entire planet come to being in the first place? The narratives around the history of the Internet and of wireless-ness are filled with apparently great scientific and technological breakthroughs. Faraday and electricity, Samuel Morse and the telegram, William Crookes and the Cathode Ray Tube, George Boole and Boolean logic, Alexander Bell and the telephone, Guglielmo Marconi and radio frequencies, Tommy Flowers and the digital computer, Claude Shannon and signal transmission, John Backus and FORTRAN, Gordon Moore and Moore’s Law of transistors, Reynold Johnson and  magnetic data storage, Leonard Kleinrock and ARPANET, Vint Cerf and TCP/IP addresses, Robert Metcalfe and Ethernet, Brent Townshend and the 56k Modem, Tim Berners-Lee and the World Wide Web, John O’Sullivan and WiFi. Stories begin to get murky with Web 2.0, the Internet of Things and the ultimate obfuscation of the Internet, The Cloud. This highly westernised, male-driven narrative of technological progress is situated within the halls of modernism and The Enlightenment as much as it is within the military industrial complex and exertions of power, control and insulation. It is filled with buzzwords, brands, laws, rules and abstractions. The work of media archaeologists go some way to dispel some of these linear narratives of technological progression which Jussi Parikka denotes, by writing histories of the present, ‘it is also looking for alternative presents and pasts – and futures’.[3] The scholarly work of Manuel De Landa places the non-linearity of history within ‘accumulations’ of ‘substratum’ that exist simultaneously within a three-phase material perspective or ‘three worlds’ of the geological, biological and linguistic.[4] It is through these alternative lenses, that a side-lined story of exploitation of both human and non-human resources on a planetary scale begin to unfold. The abuse of Malaysian forests by British and Dutch colonialists for the extraction of Gutta-percha used to encase early undersea telegraph cables[5] and the controversial sourcing of extraction of rare earth minerals such as Coltan in the Democratic Republic of Congo[6] are but two examples of colonial and corrupt acts of violence upon vulnerable landscapes and people. Not only are the resources aggressively mined, laying waste to huge areas of landscape and forest but the local inhabitants of the area are economically driven towards serving demand from the global North, for very little gain to themselves, the localities or their nations. The early colonial networks, based primarily upon shipping routes, are the foundation for the so-called distributed network of the Internet today. The global extraction of resources culminates in a situation where as Benjamin Bratton describes, ‘billions of Earthlings everywhere carry little bits of Africa around with them in their pockets’[7].

Source: Sebastien Dehesdin

The People’s Cloud project was never intended to create a new grand narrative of the Internet. It seemed to me that the Internet was a ludicrously complex luxury that had become so embedded into everyday life and culture. How do we make sense of these networks in the global North? As individuals, it is easy to feel removed through the abstract layers of the digital. Our access to technological devices are increasingly black-boxed, encased in a single piece brushed aluminium chassis or obfuscated through proprietary software applications that have extracted any notion of digital network interactions filled with precarious seams such as the two examples above. Perhaps we can at least make a start by trying to connect our sense of what the digital network is from a material perspective? People work day and night, all over the planet, to perpetuate the media infrastructure. The geophysical is itself forced to work day and night, providing fuel and mineral components for this complex network that Bratton has described as ‘an accidental megastructure’[8]. It has been argued that access to the Internet should be a human right in the same way that access to drinkable water and shelter are[9]. Whilst water and shelter have become commodified to alarming degrees, the digital network is a historical culmination of exploitation (of both human nonhuman), and of power exercised through colonialism, the military industrial complex, and neoliberalism.

This project began following a journey to a small data centre in the West Midlands of the UK with a small handheld sound recorder and a phone. The rush of air and white-noise as the air-sealed security doors opened was such an overwhelming and intense experience, and one which I have subsequently encountered many times in the production of this project. Recording this intensive, wired, whirring and claustrophobic box, I felt like maybe I could begin to sense, feel, and hear the material presence of the otherwise abstracted existence of the Internet. Data centres, are the central and critical nodes of Internet infrastructure. They situate the Cloud within racks of countless semiconductors, fibre optic cables and magnetic storage platters. It makes the abstraction of the Cloud material. For a while I became a data centre junky. I wanted to see and hear more of these spaces – to stand in awe between the racks – shaken by the vibrations of the internet’s machinic-becoming. In order to gain access to these sites I realised I would either need to learn how to become a computer engineer, a programmer, get a job within a major tech company or data centre provider, and infiltrate their offices from the inside. A slow game! Instead, I posed as a documentary film maker and artist interested in understanding what goes on inside the data halls. I pitched my idea to numerous data centre providers, each with their own approaches to what is a good or a bad idea for their marketing potential. Every single person I spoke to within the marketing or PR departments for these companies was a woman. I had fantastic conversations over the phone and in email where I presented my ideas of why I would like to film in their locations. We had informative and inspiring discussions over issues including sustainability, visibility (and invisibility) of the industry, and often how they felt their industry was misunderstood and rarely considered to be of interest to a population of people who interact with their systems on a daily basis. I suggested that perhaps I could speak with some of the people that work on the infrastructure of the cloud? Perhaps, I thought, they may have a unique perspective on what happens in these clusters. During each visit to a site of internet infrastructure I met and interviewed a designated staff member. Every single person that was suggested for an interview was a male. It didn’t matter how senior they were, there were no exceptions. It is no secret that the tech industries have huge problems with diversity but in an attempt to give these individuals an opportunity to share their expertise, and most of all to ensure that I would have access to some amazing spaces of Internet infrastructure, I agreed, and found myself having engaging conversations.

Source: Sebastien Dehesdin

Before or after each interview, we were given time, usually under close supervision from security to explore the data centres or other aspects of infrastructure linked to these sites. It was during these times that Sebastien Dehesdin, Michael James Lewis and I had a chance to reflect on what we were encountering; an opportunity to begin to attempt to make connections and relate some of the scale, complexity, ecology and history of the network with these sites. The noise of media infrastructures became my primary mode of investigation. This noise I will discuss in more detail in later essays as part of this six-part series The People’s Cloud but it should be noted here that the noise of the Internet is more than just the noise of fans, or the sound of an old school 56k modem. Noise is social, representational and at times more-than-representational. Tung Hui-Hu, author of The Prehistory of the Cloud asks ‘what tactics can we use to challenge a diffuse, invisible structure of power?’[10] We should view the cloud as a historical object, whose story is largely unwritten on both the past and future – not just a prehistory but a way to find meaning of the impending obsolescence of the Cloud. We should hear the Cloud through the testimony of space, aural architecture, oral discussion, through vibrancy and vibratory powers of the non-human forces within this machinic layer.

Bratton poetically describes how through the layers of computational infrastructure he describes as ‘The Stack’ the global surface and planetary skin has been wrapped ‘in wires, making it into a knotty, incomplete ball of glass and copper twin, and also activates the electromagnetic spectrum overhead as another drawing medium, making it visible and interactive, limning the sky with colourful blinking aeroglyphs’.[11] Lisa Parks, along with media scholar Nicole Starosielski suggest that ‘approaching infrastructure across different scales involves shifting away from thinking about infrastructures solely as centrally organized, large-scale technical systems and recognizing them as part of multivalent sociotechnical relations.’[12] From subsea cable networks to the protocols of transmission in fibre optic cable (macro to mesoscale), it important to think about the cloud as operating across a number of different levels, or layers and these include the material, social and abstract. The People’s Cloud doesn’t profess to providing evidence in explicit ways towards this complex layering but hopefully provides some entry points into the structures, viewpoints and complexity of abstraction that exist within not just the scholarly critique of media infrastructure, but with the beliefs held and felt by those individuals who are directly working on such systems. It seems bizarre how the Internet and web-based networks are often assumed to be reaching a point where they are impossible to stop, as if they are on the verge of becoming self-sustaining, forever re-emerging as the megastructure Bratton describes. The shutting down of The Pirate Bay, and its constant rebirth under various “proxy” sites that mirror and clone the original, illustrate this potential. But to date, this is not a self-perpetuating system, it is entirely reliant upon technicians devoting labour not just to the software end but also to the locating of physical locations to mirror and store the content of such proxy sites. The web is entirely reliant on individuals working behind the scenes in both hardware and software capacities. This is why the project was titled The People’s Cloud.

The next episode in the series will ask our volunteer engineers and network specialists to try and describe how the Internet actually works in a material sense and will be released in the next couple of weeks.

For more information visit www.thepeoplescloud.org.


[1] Lisa Parks, “Stuff You Can Kick”: Toward a theory of media infrastructures. In: Theo Goldberg and Patrick  Svensson, Between Humanities and the Digital, 1st ed. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015), 356.

[2] Anthony Dunne, Hertzian Tales: Electronic Products, Aesthetic Experience, and Critical Design (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), 21.

[3] Jussi Parikka, What is Media Archaeology? (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2012), 12.

[4] Manuel De Landa, A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (Cambridge, MA: Swerve & MIT Press, 1997), 21.

[5] John Tully, A Victorian Ecological Disaster: Imperialism, the Telegraph, and Gutta-Percha. (Hawaii, HA: Journal of World History. University of Hawaii Press, 2009) Volume 20, Number 4, 559-579.

[6] Blood in the Mobile, Directed by Frank Piasecki Poulsen. 2010; Dogwoof. DVD.

[7] Benjamin Bratton, The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016), 82.

[8] Benjamin Bratton, The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016), 303.

[9] Paul D. Ocheje, ‘“In the Public Interest”: Forced Evictions, Land Rights and Human Development in Africa’ (Journal of African Law, 2007), Volume 51, Number 2, 173–214.

[10] Tung Hui-Hu, A Prehistory of the Cloud (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 20165) XXII.

[11] Benjamin Bratton, The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016), 87.

[12] Lisa Parks and Nicole Starosielski, Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures (Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2015), 8.