Formation of the Cloud: History, Metaphor, and Materiality


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Virginia Tech


In this dissertation, I look at the history of cloud computing to demonstrate the entanglement of history, metaphor, and materiality. In telling this story, I argue that metaphors play a powerful role in how we imagine, construct, and maintain our technological futures. The cloud, as a metaphor in computing, works to simplify complexities in distributed networking infrastructures. The language and imagery of the cloud has been used as a tool that helps cloud providers shift public focus away from potentially important regulatory, environmental, and social questions while constructing a new computing marketplace. To address these topics, I contextualize the history of the cloud by looking back at the stories of utility computing (1960s-70s) and ubiquitous computing (1980s-1990s). These visions provide an alternative narrative about the design and regulation of new technological systems.

Drawing upon these older metaphors of computing, I describe the early history of the cloud (1990-2008) in order to explore how this new vision of computing was imagined. I suggest that the metaphor of the cloud was not a historical inevitability. Rather, I argue that the social-construction of metaphors in computing can play a significant role in how the public thinks about, develops, and uses new technologies. In this research, I explore how the metaphor of the cloud underplays the impact of emerging large-scale computing infrastructures while at the same time slowly transforming traditional ownership-models in digital communications.

Throughout the dissertation, I focus on the role of materiality in shaping digital technologies. I look at how the development of the cloud is tied to the establishment of cloud data centers and the deployment of global submarine data cables. Furthermore, I look at the materiality of the cloud by examining its impact on a local community (Los Angeles, CA). Throughout this research, I argue that the metaphor of the cloud often hides deeper socio-technical complexities. Both the materials and metaphor of the cloud work to make the system invisible. By looking at the material impact of the cloud, I demonstrate how these larger economic, social, and political realities are entangled in the story and metaphor of the cloud.



cloud computing, material culture, infrastructure, internet studies