It was a Tuesday morning in October 2012 when the IT guy said my e-mail was no longer on the server in the basement but was now “in the cloud.” I was a bit confused and sort of uneasy.
“This cloud,” I asked. “Where is it exactly?”
“You need a new password to get in.”
In May 1997, a company called NetCentric applied for a trademark on “cloud computing” to describe Internet subscription services for data and software applications. The trademark was never approved and while NetCentric’s partner Compaq pushed the terminology, they ultimately dropped the effort.
Almost 10 years later, Google CEO Eric Schmidt introduced the term “cloud computing” at a conference in August 2006, and Amazon, Microsoft and IBM soon started using it. In November 2007, The New York Times ran the headline “I.B.M. to Push ‘Cloud Computing,’ Using Data From Afar.”
Forming the digital ‘cloud’
Once it took hold, cloud symbolism took off. By 2013 the word cloud and its cohorts (cirrus, strata) were everywhere. In daily conversation, the phrase cloud computer services quickly morphed into simply, the cloud.
“The cloud is a metaphor for the Internet,” said Reuven Cohen in a 2011 edition of Technology Review. “It’s a rebranding of the Internet.” Cohen was the co-founder of Cloud Camp, offering courses in software programming.
For those still unsure what cloud computing means – and there are many – it can be summarized by what The New York Times did with its massive newspaper archive: Digitize the copies, store them in a bank of computers in a warehouse somewhere near a hydro-electric dam, charge for access to the digital archive and rent out the new basement space you just freed up in downtown Manhattan.
From a consumer’s perspective, you no longer had to bang your knee on the hard drive under the desk or buy expensive software that you might use only a handful of times. Instead, you could subscribe from the cloud as needed. Connect by phone!
The marketing cloud scales up
The term “cloud” become so pervasive so quickly partly because for millennia and across cultures clouds were a symbol that conjured powerful and mostly positive subliminal messages. Of course marketers love a subliminal boost in their messaging, but it’s doubtful even veterans of the trade were aware of how deeply clouds would resonate with the modern collective subconscious.
For more than 99.9 percent of human history, people experienced clouds as immeasurable and unknowable, animated, mysterious and powerful, ever-present, ever-changing and packed with energy. You might say storm gods were the original gangstas.
As farming cultures emerged in Mesopotamia and the Near East, clouds began their metaphorical service as a patriarchal storm god and all-powerful creator deity, speaking in thunder and rendering divine laws. The storm god was the executive in a bureacratic pantheon of gods from the Sumerians to the Akkadians, Hittites and Hebrews.
Jesus rose to heaven on a cloud, as did early Christian martyrs. In Buddhism the nature of clouds reflected the underlying truths of constant change and universal inter-connectedness. Across numerous religious traditions lightning was a symbol of awakening, enlightenment and positive transformation.
In the Christian contemplative tradition clouds are symbolic of a direct connection with the divine, of a blissful, non-dualistic state of consciousness. Certainly every Hollywood studio knew something about cloud symbolism — for more than a century they’ve all made billowing cumulonimbus clouds a primary feature of the trademark that appears at the beginning of every movie. It’s a cue to the subconscious: Get ready to enter a dream-like state.
The contemplative cloud
Written by an anonymous English monk in the 14th century, The Cloud of Unknowing used clouds as a metaphor for getting closer to God. The book is intended to be a journey away from all things familiar; abandoning all thought and reason and embracing blankness and nothingness.
Cynthia Bourgeualt, an Episcopal priest and founding director of The Contemplative Society, told me the 14th century work was a very early attempt to physiologically change one’s state of consciousness.
“The symbol of the cloud as blankness and nothingness is a way of expressing a state of non-dual consciousness,” said Bourgeault. “There is nothing for the mind to attach to. You are looking for a diffuse awareness, an objectless awareness, tuning down your faculties to move in more subtle fields of intelligence, to give our spiritual faculties a chance to perceive … ”
The Sufi writer Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan used the metaphor of a passing storm to describe his own spiritual breakthrough, after spending a stormy night in a shepherd’s hut. In Awakening: A Sufi Experience (1999, Tarcherperigree), he wrote, “ … I observed the dark clouds and heard the thunderclaps gradually receding into the distance, swept away by a raging wind. As if in sympathetic resonance, my consciousness began to melt away, scattering into an infinite, edgeless Universe.”
Science versus cloud symbolism
In the 17th century French mathematician and philosopher René Descartes viewed cloud formation as among the most challenging scientific problems of his day, largely because it was such a powerful and mysterious religious symbol.
“Since one must turn his eyes toward heaven to look at (clouds), we think of them … as the throne of God … ” wrote Descartes. “That makes me hope that if I can explain their nature … one will easily believe that it is possible in some manner to find the (rational) causes of everything wonderful about the Earth.”
It wasn’t until an autumn night in 1802 that amateur meteorologist Luke Howard suggested to a scientific debating club in London that clouds should at least be categorized and named. Howard’s use of Latin names, such as cumulonimbus (heap-cloud), cirrus (curl), and stratus (spread out) allowed his classification system to cross international borders.
Deeply impressed by Howard’s work, the German romantic poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote, “In Honour of Howard.”
“Howard gives us with his clear mind
The gain of lessons new to all mankind;
That which no hand can reach, no hand can clasp,
He first has gained, first held with mental grasp.”
Clouds are what you make them
Looking up the word cloud in a thesaurus leads to everything from joy to depression. The technical term for seeing a face or a giraffe in a cloud is pareidolia, a phenomenon similar to hearing whispers in the wind — our mind seeks familiar patterns. The range of meanings embedded in clouds is captured in “Both Sides Now,” written by Judy Collins and made famous by Joni Mitchell.
“Bows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I’ve looked at clouds that way
But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way.”
It’s no surprise the definition of cloud computing issued by the National Institutes of Standards and Technology begins by cautioning that “cloud computing can and does mean different things to different people.” In fact, clouds mean a startling number of different things to a wide variety of cultures and religious traditions all over the world, mostly positive.
Clouds have been perceived as vast and unknowable, a source of unimaginable power, a life-giving creator, a destroyer, a divine guide or a messenger. Clouds have been associated with male virility, prosperity, inspirational or dream-like states, wisdom and Utopia.
Which cloud god is in charge?
As an alias for the Web, the cloud is an international, inter-connected, seemingly omniscient creation, sort of a universal library and bulletin board imbued with unimaginable reach and organizing power, delivering results at the speed of lightning. In atmospheric tech lingo, the cloud scales up and down to meet individual and societal needs.
More and more the cloud is an indispensable tool for education, networking and socio-political movements across the spectrum. It’s the keeper of our accelerating history and a criminal sewer catering to the worst of humanity. Muggings are done remotely now.
But the cloud is where modern societies place their (secular) faith. No wonder the evangelicals are so upset. The golden calf was bad enough but replacing Elohim with a bank of servers? Which cloud-god is running the show?
The computer “cloud” is neither friend nor enemy. It’s a place where inter-connectedness has created interdependence, for good or ill. In the Judeo-Christian tradition the cloud was associated with a moral god who handed out commandments. Today’s “cloud” has everyone in a boat together and it’s testing humanity’s collective capability for ethical behavior as never before.
Mind-bending cloud irony
The awesome capability of super-computers wasn’t initially harnessed to model cloud formation because 1) it’s a very complex undertaking and 2) it’s not necessary to model clouds to predict the weather. But about 20 years ago climate scientists realized the long-term effects of global warming will depend largely on whether storm-clouds scale up enough to block the warming sunlight, or not. This slippery question is a big part of the margin of error in global warming predictions.
There’s enough irony to go around in the new world of cloud symbolism, inspiring questions like: Will the tech-age ‘cloud’ bring together enough modern solutions to dial back global warming and avert the anger of the storm gods? Certainly the religious narrative is in place. Storm gods were like the weather – mostly benevolent but occasionally fatal. Once in a great while, a big flood would remake the world. Some call it climate change.
“The future of civilization depends upon the return of spiritual awareness to the hearts and minds of men.” – Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, president of India from 1962-’67; from his essay, “The Religious Experience.”
(Ben H. Gagnon is an award-winning journalist and author of Church of Birds: An Eco-History of Myth and Religion, coming March 2023 from John Hunt Publishing, now available for pre-order. More information can be found at this website, which links to a YouTube video.)