It exists all around us, but we can only see the effect of its existence. It is a place, but not one we can visit with our bodies.
No, not that. "It's a giant mesh of mined and extracted metals and minerals in near perpetual motion, melded into some pretty random site," I am told by its latest documentarian, whose work explores its physical manifestations.
Okay. At the core of our digital lives is a vast collection of switches, ports, and wires, growing by the day, perpetually casting a wider net. It is vast data centre halls in East London, home to endless rows of servers powering the web. It is metallic, subterranean caverns in Iceland. It is thousands of miles of subsea cables traced under the Atlantic Ocean carrying packets upon packets of information to their recipients.
The infrastructure of the internet is everywhere, yet defining what is now commonly referred to as the 'cloud' is a difficult task. I reported on cloud computing for more than three years at various technology publications, travelling thousands of miles to see, listen, and write about the cloud, but never once did I come across a definition so tangible as the one I saw today. Technology giants like Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud—these companies haul in billions of dollars of revenue a year, but remain hidden behind their more famous parent companies. What they do seems like a mystery to the everyday web user. But how these services have changed the world is written in the technological strides we've taken over the past few decades.
"I've been working around topics of the cloud, media infrastructures and the internet for nearly four years now. The 'cloud', along with 'ethernet', [and] the 'web', are all such abstract terms for something that feels increasingly abstract in the way in which it operates," Matthew Parker, audiovisual artist and sound artist, told Motherboard.
Parker's latest project attempts to relay the history of the cloud and explain its very essence and reason for existence in a new six-part documentary series called The People's Cloud, in collaboration with cinematographers Michael James Lewis and Sebastien Dehesdin.
With sounds recorded from inside data centres, an original motion picture soundtrack, interviews with experts in cloud computing, and stunning visual shots of the physical realities of the cloud, Parker's The People's Cloud project tries successfully nail down a visual and audio representation of an ethereal infrastructure.
"I have made so many stories as to what first got me interest in this area I can't actually remember which of them is true or not. Something about my mum complaining about not being able to find her photos because they were 'up in the cloud somewhere', my dad working as a subcontractor for BT [British Telecom] installing broadband upgrades to the BT exchange sites across the UK, dropping the CRT monitor when we bought our first home desktop PC and smashing it, revealing the parts inside," Parker explained to Motherboard in an email.
"There is quite a robust history of the internet, written by people such as Andrew Blum in his book Tubes, but I think I really want to experience the spaces he wrote about for myself," said Parker. "When I first went to a data center for example, I was totally blown away by the power of the sound, and the air moving around. It was totally different to what the Google promo videos make it seem (all slick and silent)."
It's true—there's a certain allure to data centers: the soothing white noise, LED-illuminated server racks, and the gunmetal-grey, industrial aesthetics of machination. Unfortunately for Parker, however, some of these spaces are hard to get inside.
"Data centers and other sites of media infrastructure are understandably very difficult to gain access to and so we spent a lot of energy trying to find the right people who would let us check out their sites," he told Motherboard.
"It became a bit of a game for us, trying to access these rooms. In Iceland, we weren't allowed to film in one location but we saw inside the PoE [Point of Entry] and had a walk around. As you walked in, there was a set of steps leading down to a lowered floor. The room was completely bare and white walled with just a single 1U rack unit in the middle of it. It was like a holy grail," he said.
Future episodes of The People's Cloud will focus on the future of cloud computing, with interviews discussing matters from quantum computing to explaining how the internet works in a physical sense. Each episode of the documentary is being released on a fortnightly basis, each one accompanied by an introductory essay focusing on the themes of the episode. All episodes will be available on The People's Cloud website here.
"I think I just wanted to get a sense of what it would be like working in this weird industry that everyone uses and takes for granted," said Parker, "but hasn't got a single clue about how it actually operates, how it is a physical, material product first and an abstract software environment second."