On the materiality of cloud computing

Aeon has a great essay written by ‘cloud anthropologist’ Steven Gonzalez Monserrate (awesome title). The essay describes various ways in which cloud computing is entangled with the physical and material world. Using ethnographic methods, the author highlights several themes that connect the supposedly ephemeral ‘placeless’ realm of cloud computing to situated and embodied contexts.

On theme is the sensorial and visceral ways of knowing when something is going wrong. Workers in a Boston data center can pick up subtle changes in airflow and sound, and derive insights about the operation of the setup. So instead of relying purely on datafied, quantitative sensing input, the cloud worker himself (yes, mostly a him, see below) is the embodied sensor.

A second theme that I found interesting is the invocation of ecological metaphors. Describing a data center in Iceland, Monserrate observes “…Baldur saw his job as preventing ‘fires’ from ever occurring, or snuffing them out before they spread.” Operating a data center is like dealing with natural disasters.

A related theme where cloud computing is likened to a physical context is observed in Puerto rico, where after hurricane Maria people flocked to a data center that was among a few places where electricity was still available. One of the respondents compares the data center to a church, with cloud computer operators acting as high priests.

Finally, working in the field of cloud computing also serves to articulate, perform and sustain idealtypes of masculinity. Upon servicing a computer, one of the workers says: “‘Use the heel of your hand,’ Martin instructs, ‘it’s not a titty. You gotta grab it like you mean it, really man-handle that thing.’”

One notable absence in the essay is ‘the political’: there is no attention for the (geographical, socio-economic) power dynamics and differentials of people working in cloud computing centers for large platform companies.

Link to essay on Aeon >>

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