The New Cloud Atlas is a global effort to map each data place that makes up the cloud in an open and accountable way. We have set out to find and map each warehouse data center, each internet exchange, each connecting cable, and switch. Anything of any physical significance in the operation of the cloud should be observed in some way and recorded for everyone to see and use.
The first appearance of the internet cloud was in network diagrams. The cloud symbol was used to stand in for complexity. The cloud embodied something of the way that the internet functions. The internet was designed to be ‘end-to-end’, so computers are meant to be able to connect to each other without interference as the message passes through a network of interconnections. Only the endpoints are meant to matter. The clouds here represent ‘something in the middle that is too complex to draw here’, a kind of neutral space through which information passes. It is an act of simplification, but it also contains an implicit statement that ‘the cloud will look after itself’ that this thing is going to carry on being there.
Beclouding is deliberately making something more confusing, in order to obfuscate or conceal its meaning. The use of the cloud has shifted in digital systems. The idea that ‘this is too complicated to think about’ has been moved front and center and converted into a business model, shedding its innocence along the way. Through a sleight of hand, the cloud sometimes appears as a platform, and sometimes a material. This narrative rests on the idea that the services are to be trusted, and they can take care of themselves on your behalf. We trust them with our emails and our childhood photographs and our meeting plans and whatever else we use the cloud for. In this new definition of the cloud, there is a statement that ‘this is too complex to deconstruct or critique’. You shouldn’t try to look into the cloud and see what’s there. It’s made up of vapor, and it’s not to be interrogated. Better to simply observe it from a distance and admire it at sunset.
Once the domain of national governments, information infrastructure is increasingly constructed, operated, and maintained by major multinational corporations. These corporations, which include Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft, have a similar vested interest in maintaining control over of the flow of goods and information once exercised by national governments, but a reach at once more extensive and less transparent.