By Natalie Koerner
Legacy often refers to a memorable and glorious past that comes to us in the form of an inheritance of culture or wealth, but in computing the term is steeped in negative connotations. A legacy system is an outdated method, application, or technology that is tedious despite still being functional—something that has been technically surpassed. The word legacy merely acknowledges that the outmoded system has in some way contributed to the superiority of the current system.
Legacy systems are especially common in today’s digital memory culture. Here, the trend of externalizing more and more information, knowledge, and personal memories is symptomatic of a so-called “database complex,” which is characterized by media theorist Lev Manovich as “the irrational desire to store everything.” (1) This wish to collect could be characterized as a form of legacy creation, but the nature of that legacy is swamped by the defining quality of digital storage, which does not distinguish between memorable and forgettable content. Paradoxically, the growing capacities of digital storage media come with increasingly shorter lifespans. Floppy discs, DVDs and hard discs are all either already inaccessible to the layman or in danger of becoming obsolete. New hope came with the digital cloud: an ostensibly boundless place, rather than an object, able to perpetually gather ever more data.
The digital cloud has two spatial components: localized data centres for information storage and computation and the placeless and radio wave-based realm of wireless digital data transfer. The spatial imagination of these two constituents could hardly be more different. Data centres are like bunkers: heavily guarded and built to withstand the harshest of assaults. In some instances, data centres even occupy redundant bunkers, such as “Swiss Fort Knox,” located at a secret location in the Alps, which was built by the Swiss military in 1946 and converted to its current use in 1993. (2) Although most cloud users are unaware of their data centres’ locations, their positions around the globe play an important role in terms of climatic and political safety, legislation, and economy. Data centres anchor the ephemeral and non-localizable cloud in a geographical and political framework. (3)
But whereas data centres are often criticized for affirming a heavily guarded and exclusive territory of sovereign power, (4) the cloud retains more invisible and effusive Deleuzian control mechanisms: not bound to enclosures, they infuse networks. An atmospheric, intangible conglomerate of data—sustained, informed, and manipulated by microwaves—the cloud shares its primary characteristics with all clouds everywhere, floating and spatially all but detached from hardware, devices, and servers.
The Great Outdoors
Appropriately, the concept of a computational process uninhibited by spatial constraints has its roots in a meteorological project. Media theorist Seb Franklin identifies Lewis Fry Richardson’s Weather Prediction by Numerical Process of 1922 as a precursor to distributed processing. With his meteorological method based on overlaying physical space with an abstract computational network, Richardson imagined a potentially world-wide web for predicting the weather. His model of human computer nodes (mathematicians) linked by telegraph lines for communication that allowed the system to compile and process the individual nodes’ computational results shares basic principles with the systems we rely on today. (5) Data centres, like Richardson’s mathematicians, enable the cloud and sustain its ever-accessible online programs and services, yet they remain mostly invisible and unnoticed by the cloud users.
The concept of a cloud employed to blur a layer of hardware—the explanatory, practical aspects of a system—has its roots in medieval, religious theatricality. During the Quattrocento, a stage device called “cloud machinery”—eventually known as “heaven machinery”—was especially popular in Florentine religious theatre. Much like today’s digital storage cloud, it acted to bridge and blur a hardware gap: the one between earthly ground and divine heaven. A sturdy stage prop, clad to resemble one or several clouds, the structure could be mounted by actors who were to access more divine regions. Once the actor-saints were firmly settled within the cloud machinery, an invisible pulley system elevated them. (6) Acting as a mediator between earth and heaven, the cloud apparatus pre-empted any inquiries into the how of the ascension.
Like the cloud prop in religious theatre, the digital cloud accesses an elusive realm—of digital, physically intangible data. The cloud is thus a connective device, or rather, a mediating environment, as its responsive nature defies clearly defined boundaries. The cloud acts as an interface: between heaven and earth, between user and data. However, while the stage prop can to some extent be physically accessed, the digital cloud is experienced exclusively at the elusive level of the interface. It constitutes an exterior, a physically inaccessible realm paradoxically filled with intimate and identity-defining information about its externalized users. They remain external to the cloud, just like their stored data is external to them: users save to forget and store to remember. The cloud can thus be seen to establish what French philosopher Quentin Meillassoux calls “le grand dehors”: an utterly removed, barely imaginable, yet ever-present great outdoors. (7) Meillassoux’s term emerges from his discussion of pre-critical thinkers, who still had access to “the absolute outside…that outside which was not relative to us…that outside which thought could explore with the legitimate feeling of being on foreign territory—of being entirely elsewhere.” (8) The digital cloud is “entirely elsewhere”; it is an agglomeration of information that was once interior to its users, but it withdraws from them, becoming a convergence of three lines of inaccessibility: spatial disorientation, the impossibility of touch, and inconceivable accuracy.
Clouds displace and dislocate: meteorological clouds transport water, digital clouds transport data. The great outdoors, the “entirely elsewhere,” applies to the spatial imagination of the metaphorical cloud as much as to the digital cloud. Inspired by airplane travel, modernist painter Georgia O’Keeffe worked on the series of paintings Sky Above Clouds for fifteen years. Her paintings are oriented towards a horizon line with a cloudless realm above and an even, dense carpet of abstracted clouds below. The space depicted in these paintings is completely placeless, void of any geographical markers. The layer of clouds liberates the body in a way that resonates with Wendy Chun’s description of the effect of cyberspace “as a virtual nonplace, … [freeing] users from their bodies and their locations.” (9) In the digital cloud, data is placeless and liberated from the bodies that generate it.
Being among clouds, for example, on an airplane or in the mountains, can be even more disorienting than being above them, as the clouds conceal the horizon, landmarks and all other points of spatial reference. Conceived for the Swiss EXPO in Geneva in 2002, Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Blur Building was constructed on Lake Geneva and accessible only via a bridge. The pavilion consisted of an infrastructure—a network of 30,000 nozzles—that redistributed lake water as mist. The resulting artificial cloud distorted and hid the lake views, part of the architects’ agenda to disturb a clichéd and often reproduced setting for tourist photos. In their words, “It was a reaction to the new orthodoxy of high-definition and simulation technologies. We wanted to create a low-definition space, a blur.” (10)
Interestingly, even while experiencing its displacing “white out,” “white noise” (11) effect, visitors to the Blur Building were not inside the artificial cloud, merely surrounded by it. When a person (or any solid thing) touches it, a cloud changes its aggregate state and becomes liquid. As water, the substance no longer forms part of the cloud.
The same effect can be observed with the digital cloud: a kind of aggregate change happens “upon touch”: at the digital interface. The interface is a “significant surface,” a term coined by Vilém Flusser to designate a two-dimensional plane that transmits meaning. (12) As soon as an image or a document appears on the interface screen, it becomes active information and no longer forms part of the cloud. The users are always outside of the cloud even though it surrounds them constantly and contains their personal data; the possibility of accessing it via a device is always (given an internet connection) present, but never the possibility to enter. The interface demarcates a definitive separation between user and storage. Like a semi-permeable membrane, it allows for data-osmosis but is impenetrable to human thought or spatial imagination.
The cloud user at the interface may get a sense, as in Michel Foucault’s heterotopias, of “places which are absolutely other,” and of that “unreal space that opens up potentially beyond its surface.” (13) However, whereas heterotopias are localizable, cyberspace—and the cloud—cannot be situated geographically. (14) The great outdoors occupied and generated by the cloud is thus a spatial step beyond heterotopia, exiting the common ground of geography despite its data centre lifelines.
The invisibility of the non-ionizing microwaves that constitute the cloud contributes to the mysteriousness of the space the cloud occupies in the imagination of its users. Prior to 1802, meteorological clouds were similarly enigmatic. This changed when pharmacist and amateur meteorologist Luke Howard presented a nomenclature for clouds at a popular science theatre in London. The previous century had witnessed great advances in taxonomy, spear-headed by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, who established a binomial classification system for organic life with the publication of his System Naturae in 1735. However, the revolutionary aspect about Howard’s system was that it classified occurrences that are not entities in themselves, but are the “visible signs of vast atmospheric processes.” (15)
Howard’s system incorporated flexibility, enabling him to classify the instable and ever-changing evanescence of clouds and thereby rendering them more graspable as a scientific phenomenon. His three basic categories of clouds—cirrus, stratus, and nimbus—reflected atmospheric processes instead of their resulting shapes and could be combined to describe further cloud variations. One could now distinguish a plump nimbus cloud consisting of condensed water from a delicate cirrus cloud, with its thin, feather-like strands of ice crystal formations.
Whereas the appearance of a meteorological cloud depends on the relations of otherwise invisible parameters—wind, temperature, humidity, and solid particles in the air—the digital cloud offers an alternate, powerfully blurry visualization of data centres, glass fibres, and microwaves that are so generic and interchangeable in the spatial imagination that they might just as well not exist.
However, the power of the cloud seems to lie in its not only invisible but also unimaginable form. Digital clouds—much like their H2O counterparts—can manifest themselves in nearly infinite variety. To make them, surveyors walk through a space they want to document carrying portable 3D laser scanners that gather roughly 500,000 points per second, each point representing a place where the light emanating from the rotating laser head was reflected. The digital point clouds created by this compiled information are so dense that, when seen on a screen, they create the illusion of a solid 3D model that can be used to represent surveyed buildings and landscapes.
The accuracy of point clouds negates the possibility for zooming in on a particular point or area, as this causes the point cloud to take on its own spatial characteristics, completely removed from those of the surveyed space. Magnifying an area results in zooming past points, and the point world includes adjacencies, gaps, and near-overlays that, observed, reveal a space entirely different from the 3D model of a building or landscape experienced at a human scale.
The Legacy of Accuracy
In the point cloud, space—definitive, tangible space—withdraws into accuracy. It moves towards that great outdoors of unfathomable finitude. In 2010, the European library consortium Planets, coordinated by the British Library, collaborated to preserve a digital genome box containing a JPEG image, an HTML website, a QuickTime movie, a PDF, and a Java program. The box also includes descriptions, files, conversion tools, and software to decode, convert, and access the file samples. These documents are stored on a variety of mediums including paper, microfilm, floppy discs, CDs, DVDs, flash-drives, and HDDs. (16) The collection was “entombed” in a metal box in Swiss Fort Knox, where it is guarded by a bulletproof checkpoint, 24-hour surveillance, electromagnetic pulse protection, and even a pressure system to contain chemical weapon assaults. (17)
To deal with the short lifespan of the preserved mediums—fifteen years for DVDs, less for magnetic hard drives—there is an accessible online version of the files. The “originals” in the entombed (enbunkered) box will soon carry only aesthetic value, rather than any accessible information. To access the data they contain, future researchers will most likely turn to the updated online versions held in some future manifestation of the cloud.
The future legacy of today’s cloud and data storage signals two sets of anxieties. The first links to the increasingly rapid obsolescence of data storage mediums that entails the melancholy of information loss. (18) The desire to save data has created a system in which outdatedness replaces the storage filter: rather than losing data, it’s the accessibility of the storage medium may be lost with age. Second are the apprehensions inherent to the age of the Anthropocene. Human activities are now a dominant influence for the entire planet, including even its climate, which raises the concern that all unchartered, pristine, or “healthy” territory has been corrupted.
In light of these anxieties, the cloud recreates a precious, unknowable, and inaccessible space that has been lost to us since an expulsion from paradise, or the separation of a world of ideas from a world of things, or the dawn of the Anthropocene. The digital cloud is “entirely elsewhere”: despite being generated by human content, it is inaccessible to human bodies and comprehension. The spatial intangibility of the cloud, the incomprehensible accuracy of its data points, and the melancholy engendered by the decay of the storage media it replaces, cause the cloud to withdraw, pulling it further and further away from us as it transforms into our great outdoors.
(1) Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006), 46.
(2) Pete Brook, “See What’s Buried in the Swiss Bunkers Turned into Secret Data Centers,” Wired, September 29, 2014. Accessed June 8, 2017. https://www.wired.com/2014/09/yann-mingard-deposit/
(3) Louise Amoore, “Cloud geographies: computing, data, sovereignty,” Progress in Human Geography, August 11, 2016, 6-7. doi:10.1177/0309132516662147
(4) Tung-Hui Hu, A Prehistory of the Cloud (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2015).
(5) Seb Franklin, “Cloud Control, or The Network as Medium,” Cultural Politics 8 (2012): 452-454.
(6) Alessandra Buccheri, The Spectacle of Clouds, 1439-1650 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014).
(7) Timothy Morton describes this as a clumsy translation of the French “le grand dehors” in Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 64.
(8) To Quentin Meillassoux, George Berkley was one of the first “critical” thinkers because he divided perceivable qualities into primary and secondary: “Those properties of the world which are a function of our relation to it, and those properties of the world as it is ‘in itself,’ subsisting indifferently of our relation to it.” To Meillassoux, the problem is defined by the fact that “thought cannot get outside itself in order to compare the world as it is ‘in itself’ to the world as it is ‘for us,’ and thereby distinguish what is a function of our relation to the world from what belongs to the world alone.” Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, trans. Ray Bassier (London: Bloomsbury, 2008), location 97, Kindle for Mac.
(9) Chun, Control and Freedom, 37-38.
(10) Laurie Anderson, “Interview with Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio” in Scanning: The Aberrant Architectures of Diller + Scofidio, ed. Aaron Betsky (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 2003), 147.
(11) Diller + Scofidio, Blur: The Making of Nothing (New York City: Harry N. Abrahams, 2002), 33.
(12) Alexander R. Galloway, The Interface Effect, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012) 30.
(13) Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias” in Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory, ed. Neil Leach (New York City: Routledge, 1997), 332.
(14) Chun, Control and Freedom, 52 and Foucault, Of Other Spaces, 332.
(15) Richard Hamblyn, The Invention of Clouds: How an Amateur Meteorologist Forged the Language of the Skies, location 1989, Kindle for Mac.
(16) A description of the “Planets Time Capsule Project” can be found on the project’s website: Planets Time Capsule: A Showcase for Digital Preservation, accessed March 1, 2017, http://www.ifs.tuwien.ac.at/dp/timecapsule/timecapsule.html.
(17) Tung-Hui Hu, A Prehistory of the Cloud (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2015), location 2487, Kindle for Mac.
(18) Data centres are said to become obsolete after seven years. For the melancholy associated with fast aging, see also “The Melancholy of New Media” in Hu, A Prehistory of the Cloud, location 2447, Kindle for Mac.
Natalie Koerner (DE) is an architect currently enrolled in the Ph.D. program at the KADK in Copenhagen. She studied architecture at Cambridge University and at the ETH, Zurich. She has worked for several architecture firms, including Gigon/Guyer Architects, and for the artist Olafur Eliasson. Her work revolves around the spatial aspects of memory.