But why ‘cloud’ ?

icloud, cloud computing, cloud storage, soundcloud, ‘The Cloud’  – these terms abound at the moment defining some element or service associated with the internet, but why ‘cloud’? Why choose a word for ‘a condensed mass of water vapour within our atmosphere’ as a metaphor to describe one of the most important developments for human society in a generation?  and what concern is it to a Scottish artist/waller?

Rather smugly, perhaps, I believe there is a direct link to the use of the term and myself! Observant viewers will have noticed that my logo is a carved ‘cloud’ which I undertook within one of my very first public commissions, a garden wall for Meadowside St Paul’s Church in Dundee.

But why a – ‘cloud’? According to Wikipedia – ‘The name comes from the use of a cloud-shaped symbol as an abstraction for the complex infrastructure it contains in network system diagrams‘ –  illustrated thus:-

Which to me, is a rather tenuous theory. Trawling further around the internet to see if anyone understood the true origin of the term (as defined by me!) I discovered that there was great debate and controversy as to who used it first and that it is of considerable monetary value to the likes of Apple & Google.

Differing theories as to its first use range, from an attempt to patent it as a trademark by Netcentric in 1997 to Google’s Eric Schmidt using it during a search engine conference in 2006. (source: http://www.johnmwillis.com/cloud-computing/who-coined-the-phrase-cloud-computing/ )

Trendy buzzwords have been a feature of ‘tech-speak’ ever since the first chip was attached to a board, my personal favourite has always been a TWAIN device, used usually to describe an external component that connects to a computer, it stands for – Technology Without An Interesting Name!  ‘Cloud’ is just the latest word used to describe some part of the diverse world associated with computers and technology. But why it and not something else?

Consider what the word has to encapsulate, the vast network of computers and servers that make up the internet. A worldwide bank of human knowledge, resources and services, everything is now ‘online’. Consensus by use appears to now reign  but why ‘cloud’ and not something else that describes a vast untouchable thing –  Galaxy? Universe? Milky Way? Surely there must be a more significant profound reason for it’s use other than a dodgy sketch around some computer terms.

Correctly attributing the origin is obviously an important matter and as no other source has put forward a believable hypothesis it seems incumbent upon me to enlighten the debate.

Many years ago whilst still at Art College I purchased a book from a stall selling ex library stock, it’s sub title intrigued me – ‘A Humanist Account of the Space Age’. Purchased for little more than a few pence the book has had a profound effect upon me and my perception of the world and society. Written in 1970 by Loren Eiseley – Benjamin Franklin Professor of Anthropology and the History of Science at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. ‘The Invisible Pyramid’ is a series of essays that eloquently describes the rise of man from ‘forest dweller’ to the present day ‘space age’ Using mythical metaphors, describing the sun as ‘The Star Dragon’ he explores fundamental questions and theories about the human condition, our relationship with nature and our place in the cosmos; it is a beautiful book written with ‘imagination and grace’.

Following the evolution of man he discusses factors that have contributed to our species alone developing beyond the natural world – ‘Man is no more natural than the world. In reality he is… the creator of a phantom universe, the universe we call culture’. His concepts are stated non religiously but neither does he in a Richard Dawkins way attempt to debunk organised religions, he leaves the way open for his insights to be interpreted by the religious with equal relevance and meaning. Science and religion are two faces of one coin, both are attempts to comprehend, rationalise and explain our genesis, ‘first cause’ – God or nature and our subsequent existence.

Eisley quotes a contemporary of Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace who identified that it was ‘this remarkable solitary product’ the human brain that had allowed man to transcend nature – ‘and had passed out of the evolution of biological organs and had entered upon what we may call history’. The evolutionary development of the brain is as a direct consequence of the power of communication through man’s ability of speech, evolution had ‘literally created a superorganic structure, unimaginable until its emergence.’

‘Language, wherever it first appeared, is the cradle of the human universe.. in this second world of culture, forms arise in the brain and can be transmitted in speech as words are found for them.’ 

This singular power; to be able to process the world internally and then express it externally  has freed man from the ‘prison’ of the natural world. Free to imagine things past and things still to come, free to use this imagination to shape the world to his own will and then to record and share those experiences. Initially this was passed orally. As mans world expanded his knowledge grew, so too did the need to have a tangible method of saving what had been gained and so written history emerged. ‘Man is not a creature to be contained in a solitary skull‘ – the internet is just the latest technological development of mans desire to record his existence.

Loren Eiseley’s thesis is that the human brain and communication has allowed man to become – ‘the creator of a phantom universe, the universe we call culture – a formidable cloud of ideas, visions, institutions which hover about us, indeed constitute human society, but which can be dissected from no single brain’. Is that not an eloquent summation of the  internet? This I believe is the true source of the use of the term ‘cloud‘. After I had completed the carving I thought it was an ideal symbol to use to define what I was all about, that there was this latent outside force, creativity, that was alive with future ideas and potential that I hoped to tap into with my artistic practice.

Now that I alone! – have proven the true origin of the term – is there money in it for me??

The Invisible Pyramid by Loren Eiseley, ISBN 0 246 64046 4


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