Summary

  • “This book is an attempt to examine what occurs in the gap between the real and the virtual” (xii). It’s “two stories”: “how the cloud grew out of older networks, such as railroad tracks, sewer lines, and television circuits, and often continues to be layered on top of or over them”; “Using these examples, the book tells a second story about the politics of digital culture” (xii). “Yet, counterintuitively, what this book argues is that ‘the cloud’ also indexes a reemergence of sovereign power within the realm of data” (xiii).
  • “Within that container, my own four-chapter structure lays out the following question: if the cloud is a cultural fantasy (chapter 1) of participation (chapter 2) and security (chapter 3), what happens when users participate in their own security (chapter 4)? My argument is constructed by examining the cloud’s networks (chapter 1), virtualization (chapter 2), storage (chapter 3), and data-mining interfaces (chapter 4)” (xxv).

Keywords

  • “virtualization”: “a technique for turning real things into logical objects, whether a physical network turned into a cloud-shaped icon, or a warehouse full of data storage servers turned into a ‘cloud drive’” (x).
  • “sovereignty of data”: a hybrid of sovereign, disciplinary, and governmental power produced through the material lacquering of information networks (xvi).

Notes

0. Introduction

  • The cloud indexes a re-emergence of sovereignty, which Hu argues displaces “disciplinary power” (Foucault) and the “control society” (Deleuze) (xiv–xv).
  • “Somewhere, a computer is calculating the impact of each spending decision and adjusting to it in real time, and, in turn, the cardholders adjust, too. ‘You’ are a set of spending patterns, and that projected profile both enables the bank to extend credit to you as well as puts the onus on you to take responsibility for those spending patterns. Convenient, if a little creepy” (xv).
  • “This book’s goal is to think beyond this idea of the control society, to both acknowledge its influence and use the cloud to ask what this theory cannot account for. If we look at the cloud closely, we find the presence of phenomena that hint at other explanations” (xvi).
  • “Instead, the sovereignty of data comes out of the way we invest the cloud’s technology with cultural fantasies about security and participation” (xvi). “The wars over resources and territory and extralegal torture after 9/11 may appear to be worlds away from the political economy of data. But, I contend, they point to a resurgence of a violence that is enabled by the cloud” (xvii). Direct links to Appadurai and Galloway and Thacker.
  • “Yet the cloud, I am arguing, inevitably frustrates [the platform studies approach], because by design, it is not based on any single medium or technology; it is medium-agnostic, rather than medium-specific” (xix).
  • “Instead, I am offering an alternative to the kind of historiographical model reliant on a series of technologically induced epistemic shifts or ruptures that often pervades media studies. The analog technologies within the cloud periodically return to view, even if in spectral form. As a result, analog sources will allow us to think through digital problems, and, in turn, challenge the implicit separation between analog and digital” (xxiv).
  • “Nixon’s insight is applicable beyond the realm of environmental activism (and the environmental footprint of the cloud); the cloud, too, enacts its own form of slow violence. The constantly changing platforms of digital technology seem to call out for, as Peter Lunenfeld puts it, ‘doing theory and criticism in real time’—namely, responding to each event of digital culture as quickly as possible. Yet the cloud, this book argues, causes a double displacement: the displacement of place itself from sight, but also a temporal displacement” (xxix).

1. The Shape of the Network

  • “This chapter begins by contending that new and old medias are layered on top of each other, just as the railroad track is layered with fiber-optic conduit. The process of media change causes ‘old media’ to be forgotten in our cultural memory, almost as if a box has been buried, and then the map or route to it abandoned. We know or remember it is there somewhere, but are unable to see it. Though digital technologies seem to change faster than the observer can record, its physical traces are slower to change. By examining the physical geography of digital networks, we can see the spaces where the old has been displaced, and where new media, such as that of the Internet, are layered, adjacent, or even intertwined with far older mediums” (2). In a way, the turn toward infrastructure is a reinvigoration of space in an analytical tradition more concerned with time.
  • “But if the cloud has turned geography into the virtual flows of market capital, it has also spawned a number of equally virtual political movements that challenge this vision. At the same time that networks describe the newly dematerialized corporate structures, they also have shaped capital’s seeming opposite: antiglobalization protests” (4). Again, compare w/ Appadurai.
  • The distributed network never arrived: it is a conceptual, not material formation (6). “Seen properly, the structure of the Internet resembles a graft: a newer network grafted on top of an older, more established network. In this metaphor, preexisting infrastructures, such as the rail network, are like rootstock, while the newer fiber-optic cables resemble the uppermost portion, known in horticulture as the scion” (7). This is why thinking historically is so important when analyzing digital culture. (And indeed, Hu proposes the graft as an analytical method.)
  • Networks exceed their material infrastructure to become desires (10). Proposes “network fever,” an unspoken parallel to archive fever, and which I prefer to “network fetishism.”

2. Time-Sharing and Virtualization

  • “Contemporary scholars agree that the user was a modern invention; time-sharing systems, and the applications written for them, such as Spacewar, would invent the personal user. But what is often lacking in these accounts is a description of the way the user’s subject position is created not just by software, as media theorists would assert, but by the economic system that undergirds whatever relation any of us have with technology” (39). “We need another explanation, and this chapter revisits the history of time-sharing not to retell a well-worn story of inventors, technologies, and dates, but to show how time-sharing seemed to restructure the very boundaries between work and leisure, public and private. I analyze both the rhetoric invoked by computer scientists to describe their own work, as well as political, legal, and nonspecialist documents that set out a broader cultural imagination of what time-sharing could do. As I argue, time-sharing was part of a larger and more fundamental economic shift away from waged labor and toward what Maurizio Lazzarato terms the economy of ‘immaterial labor’—an economy of flexible labor that encompasses even seemingly personal or unpaid tasks, such as writing a review for a favorite product on Amazon.com” (39).
  • “As I argue, the best way to understand how this power is deployed is not through surveillance cameras, web trackers, or cryptographic algorithms. Rather, it is an ancient technology, the sewer system: centuries before computers were invented, sewers kept each household’s private business private even as it extended the armature of the state into individual homes. Using the case study of data leakage and leaking in general, the final section examines a possible way to reimagine this topography of control” (41).
  • “As a consequence, what we think of the ‘user’ confuses personal intimacy for economic intimacy. This confusion may explain why so much of digital culture is powered by user labor and user-generated content” (50). Connect w/ Scholz and Terranova.
  • “Waste is particularly apt because it allows us to understand the effect of what Parikka terms ‘digital hygiene’ in today’s digital culture: the idea that a user is responsible for keeping her data from mixing with others, for avoiding infection with computer viruses, and so forth. Hygiene, of course, is not only produced by infrastructure, such as sewers, but is also a historically specific practice for the exercise of power” (57).
  • More information about the materiality of digital culture is not enough: “That problem, as I see it, has to do with our mental map of cloud computing, the heuristic that we use to imagine how information is organized, whether in physical space or in digital space” (67).

3. Data Centers and Data Bunkers

  • “While securing data in the cloud typically works through the gentle structures of control—for instance, antivirus programs invisibly scan downloads for their users—the military camp-like structures that have reappeared in the form of data centers suggest a largely unseen yet militarized aspect of data security that cannot be described by regulatory power alone. The second half of this book is intended to serve as a corrective to the typical direction of new media studies, to both acknowledge the use of ‘control’ as an explanatory rubric and also to redirect the conversation to a latent violence standing in front of us all along” (81).
  • “Extending architectural theorist Paul Virilio’s meditation on the ruins of World War II bunkers, I contend that bunkers are a way of invoking the specter of a future disaster, a disaster that the cloud both generates and protects us from. I end by considering a European library consortium’s attempts to entomb digital media in a former Swiss Air Force bunker. This project, intended to protect our cultural inheritance from decay, is an example of how the cloud is increasingly used for the ‘cold storage’ of data. These attempts to shield our data from the flow of time, however, place us in a melancholic relationship to the present, leaving us forever fixated on a loss that is always about to come” (82).

Archive and Impact

  • Hu’s book is a beautiful piece of scholarship, one that I would love to emulate. It’s informed by his peripatetic career: he was a network engineer in the 1990’s, now a poet and media critic, trained in film and media studies. He teaches in an English department at the University of Michigan.
  • His method is inspirational and worth quoting in detail:
    • “Analyzing the cloud requires standing at a middle distance from it, mindful of but not wholly immersed in either its virtuality or its materiality. For this reason, this book does not adhere to the cloud’s current technologies—for instance, by dissecting the lines of code in a network protocol implementation. Nor will this book begin with the story of an invention. There are no scenes of apartment windows in Cupertino or cubicles in Seattle lit late at night, where an Apple worker realized something about accessing e-mail applications over the web, or an Amazon engineer became aware that excess computing capacity could be resold to other companies. Because the ‘cloud’ is, properly understood, a cultural phenomenon, I mobilize three categories of primary sources that address this larger sense of the cloud:”
    • “1. Representations and anticipations of the cloud in US popular media, legal and political records, corporate advertisements and ephemera, and the like”; “2. Examples drawn from the culture of computer science itself: the terms, metaphors, and diagrams that show how scientists and hackers understood their subjects—descriptions, to be clear, which often failed or succeeded purely by practice rather than technological superiority”; “3. Photographs, drawings, videos, and even games that offer insight into how visual culture functions in the cloud: what the cloud looks like on-screen; how we draw or map its shape; how the cloud grew out of TV/ video networks” (xx–xxii).