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Very Like a Whale

What’s in a cloud?

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What’s in a cloud? 

Writers have long used clouds as metaphors for metaphor-making. In Hamlet, Hamlet messes with his girlfriend’s dad, the courtier Polonius, by pointing out the different shapes he sees: 

H: Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in the shape of a camel?

P: By th’ mass, and ’tis like a camel indeed.

H: Methinks it is like a weasel.

P: It is backed like a weasel.

H: Or like a whale?

P: Very like a whale.

As always, the play is playing with perception. Can a person ever know what’s real? Is that a reasonable thing to even care about? The point is also that Polonius cannot be trusted; he is a sycophant. Hamlet will stab him dead two scenes later.

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Clouds are ambiguous. Liquid solid. Ethereal material. As Shakespeare’s Mark Antony says, their most striking images “mock our eyes with air.”

The writers in this issue think about clouds of various shapes. Several address the cloud—that is, the global archipelago of warehouses that collectively coordinate the world’s computing power.  

Today, the press tends to talk about the cloud in imperial terms. It is the Valhalla of Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Alibaba; it is strongman leaders demanding data sovereignty for their country of a billion plus people. But those who have worked in data centers for decades tell a different story. The cloud, they point out, came into many firms from the bottom up, at the behest of engineers, not management. Yet even those who were there on the ground floor, who worked with “bare metal” and knew what it felt like to cut your fingers on the rails that held racks of servers in place (“a badge of honor”), could not anticipate the new forms of power that the cloud would bring. 

The advent of the cloud did not only create the conditions for the concentration of unprecedented amounts of wealth and information in the hands of a few firms. It also changed how rank-and-file engineers worked. The so-called Agile revolution started before the cloud took off. But it gained speed with it. Like previous developments in the computing industry, Agile combined counterculture and cyberculture; it was ostensibly rebellious, but committed rebels to sprinting toward corporate goals.  

Other writers in this issue take, literally, to the sky. Aloft, clouds remain difficult to assess. Even as political consensus in favor of trying to reach “net zero” grows, climate scientists will struggle to measure emissions and to compute what it would take to offset them. One trick of the cloud metaphor is to suggest that recording and computation are everywhere, and yet hazy points remain.  

Obscurities remain on clear days. Taking sprawling aerial surveillance programs in their sights, other contributors argue that the obscurity of individuals and organizations who have amassed the power to see everything must be dispelled. They share strategies for gaining information about government and corporate plans. Transparency is always a struggle.

Clouds are part of the weather, and another sense of weather is the Romance language one: le temps, el tiempo, il tempo. Time itself. This issue explores other temporalities, and the bodies they are tied to. One writer celebrates “crip time” as an alternative to “flow,” which is not about fulfilling work discipline, but rather about learning to be stuck. Another writer imagines other times altogether. This issue contains the first speculative fiction we have published.

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Throughout human history, clouds have acted as omens. Aeromancy is the art of divining the future from the sky. This issue considers possible futures, without being too predictive; the sky is a complex canvas, and its patterns shift quickly with the wind.

This piece appears in Logic's upcoming issue 16, "Clouds." Subscribe today to receive the issue as part of a subscription, or preorder at our store in print or digital formats.