3 min read

I have a lot of feelings about “the cloud” as a metaphor for networked computing. All my indignation comes too late, of course. I’ve been having this rant for a solid four years, and that ship has long since sailed–the cloud is here to stay. As a figurative expression for how we compute these days, it’s proven to have way more sticking power than, say, the “information superhighway”. (Remember that one?)

Still, we should always be careful about the ways we use figurative language. Sure, you and I know we’re really talking about odd labyrinths of blinking lights in giant refrigerator buildings. But does your CEO? I could talk a lot about the dangers of abstracting away our understanding of where our data actually is and who has the keys. But I won’t, because I have even better arguments than that.

Here are my three reasons why “the cloud” is a terrible metaphor:

1. Clouds are too easy to draw. Anyone can draw a cloud. If you’re really stuck you just draw a sheep and then erase the black bits. That means that you don’t have to have the first clue about things like SaaS/PaaS/IaaS or local persistent storage to include “the cloud” in your Power Point presentation. If you have to give a talk in half an hour about the future of your business, clouds are even easier to draw than Venn Diagrams about morale and productivity. Had wecalled it “ Calabi–Yau Manifold Computing” the world would have saved hundreds of man hours spent in nonsensical meetings.The only thing sparingus from a worse fate is the stalling confusion that comes from trying to combine slide one–“The Cloud”–and slide two–”BlueSky Thinking!”.

2. Hundreds of Victorians died from this metaphor. Well, okay, not exactly. But in the nineteenth century, the Victorians had their own cloud concept–the miasma. The basic tenet was that epidemic illnesses were caused by bad air in places too full of poor people wearing fingerless gloves (for crime). It wasn’t until John Snow pointed to the infrastructure that people worked out where the disease was coming from. Snow mapped the pattern of pipes delivering water to infected areas and demonstrated that germs at one pump were causing the problem. I’m not saying our situation is exactly analogous. I’m just saying if we’re going to do the cloud metaphor again, we’d better be careful of metaphorical cholera.

3. Clouds might actually be alive. Some scientists reckon that the mechanism that lets clouds store and release precipitation is biological in nature. If this understanding becomes widespread, the whole metaphor’s going to change underneath us. Kids in school who’ve managed to convince the teacher to let them watch a DVD instead of doing maths will get edu-tained about it. Then we’re all going to start imagining clouds as moving colonies of tiny little cartoon critters. Do you want to think about that every time you save pictures of your drunken shenanigans to your Dropbox?

And one reason why it isn’t a bad metaphor at all:

1. Actually, clouds are complex and fascinating . Quick pop quiz–what’s the difference between cirrus fibrates and cumulonimbus? If you know the answer to that, you’re most likely either a meteorologist, or you’re overpaid to sit at your desk googling the answers to rhetorical questions. In the latter case, you’ll have noticed that the Wikipedia article on clouds is about seventeen thousand words long. That’s a lot of metaphor.

Meteorological study helps us to track clouds as they move from one geographic area to another, affecting climate, communications, and social behaviour. Through careful analysis of their movements and composition, we can make all kinds of predictions about how our world will look tomorrow. The important point came when we stopped imagining chariots and thundergods, and started really looking at what lay behind the pictures we’d painted for ourselves.


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