By Thomas Reitmaier
Today is world meteorological day and the world meteorological organization is celebrating by releasing a database of cloud images. You can even submit your own. Looking over this stunning collection of images I’m reminded of the breath-taking world of wind and weather we inhabit. But as a computer scientist with an interest in mobile architectures those images look familiar in another sense and remind me of those other Clouds. For I often encounter such images in presentations, as splash images on landing pages of the next great app, and as icons on user interfaces and in technical diagrams.
Good design, as the eccentric design theorist Vilém Flusser (1999) reminds us, is to some extent deception. The metaphor of the computer file exemplifies this quite well. It only takes a moments reflection to realize that the file you store on your Desktop, beautifully represented by an icon, isn’t the bounded physical entity it pretends to be. Especially if the file is larger it might be fragmented across your hard drive (rapidly rotating disk coated with magnetic material) or SSD (complex integrated circuit assemblies). What makes the File metaphor so cunning is that at the moment of user interaction the system’s view of the file and the users point of view – e.g. that document I’m working on – converge (on this point, see Harper et al 2013). That is, the user can get on with what she wants to do, because Operating System, Filesystem, and User Interface are working together in consistent harmony.
The metaphor of the Cloud, however, works differently from that of the File. Its goal is not to bind together systems and user perspectives, but to render invisible and immaterial massive digital infrastructures – data centres, undersea cables, etc – as well as the software services that run on top of these and that we depend on every day. In the Cloud such services are opaque, and we can never really be sure if they are thoughtfully and robustly engineered with craft and care, form a tightly-coupled monolith that could buckle on load, or are something that is just cobbled together. When developing services in the Cloud, we seldom talk about user awareness and control but are well versed in discussions on how our system scales or how we can leverage and monetize user data often to the detriment of user control.
As we celebrate world meteorological day and marvel at the weather world we inhabit, we would do well to pause for a moment and think about those other Clouds that configure, constrain, and mediate so much in our lives. Perhaps a better metaphor is needed than an image of a beautiful meadow, blue skies, and fluffy clouds.
Flusser, Vilém. The Shape of Things: A Philosophy of Design. Edited by Anthony Mathews. London: Reaktion Books, 1999.
Harper, Richard, Eno Thereska, Sian E. Lindley, Richard Banks, Phil Gosset, William Odom, Gavin Smyth, and Eryn Whitworth. “What Is a File?” In Proceedings of the 2013 Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work, 1125–1136. CSCW ’13. New York, NY, USA: ACM, 2013. http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/2441776.2441903.