In 2006, during a conference in the industry, the then-CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt, introduced a widely used term: "the cloud." Schmidt described it as a significant technological shift that would allow information to exist everywhere and nowhere simultaneously. By labeling it "the cloud," he made the change appear natural, suggesting that your information is not stored in a massive server bank in Nevada but rather "somewhere in a cloud."
It was as if data was a floating nimbus above us. This linguistic fusion of the artificial and natural worlds is just one example among many. It encompasses a range of appropriations such as Firefox, OpenSea, OnStar, Airbnb, Apple (with names like Yosemite, Monterey, Big Sur), internet surfing, neural networks, computer mice, and computer viruses.
Incorporating nature into the language allows technologists to position their domain as a genuine and integrated extension of human experience. This framing brings a sense of familiarity to complex innovations, but it also discourages deep contemplation. As researchers have pointed out, the phrase "data mining" fails to clarify the privacy concerns that arise when Meta sifts through personal information.
This process of naturalization—where technology becomes as commonplace as trees, daylight, and dirt—is a defining characteristic of modern life. It is a way for companies to camouflage their tools. This is a phenomenon of "infrastructural concealment," and for many modern technologies, environmental terminology plays a crucial role. If the cloud is as natural as the fluffy clouds floating across the sky on a pleasant afternoon, then it is easy to assume that its presence is harmless, disregarding the environmental burden caused by data storage.
"The cloud" seems untouchable, indifferently floating above human affairs. However, this assumption is false. These technologies are not ethereal abstractions, nor are they elemental forces beyond our control. Unlike clouds, tornadoes, wildfires, or earthquakes, they are products owned by companies that can be fined, restricted, and regulated by society—a fact that most corporations would prefer governments to forget.
Regardless of how closely companies align their products with natural elements, they remain subject to human jurisdiction. We are not passive observers gazing at the sky. Recognizing this power is crucial now. Over the past decades, our way of inhabiting the world has undergone profound shifts. Both natural and artificial environments are rapidly evolving. Technophiles continue to introduce designs that permeate every aspect of our reality, such as the Internet of Things, the metaverse, AR goggles, haptic wearables.
Meanwhile, scientists warn us about the "Anthropocene" and implore us to acknowledge the destructive impact of human industry. Our understanding of the environment has always been intertwined with our technologies, and vice versa. Before Google Maps, star maps guided us; before algorithmic pathways, charts of wind and currents shaped trade routes; before the addictive scroll of Instagram, the mesmerizing flicker of fire captivated our attention.
Metaphors like "the cloud" draw upon these ancient roots, blending slick marketing terms with a sense of primal weightiness. In his speech, Schmidt was highlighting the commercial potential of this "new cloud model where people are living... more and more online," creating a captive audience for advertisers. Nevertheless, the age-old connection between our tools and the environment reveals that we can consider this relationship beyond the narrow lens of profit. Embracing "the cloud" signifies our ability to transcend perceived human limitations and normalize a new world.
If we need a vast societal reconfiguration amidst climatic upheaval, it matters what thoughts think thoughts. The only remaining question is how we will deploy our nature metaphors: Will they be used solely to sell iPhones, or will they serve as a means to navigate and survive the ongoing sixth mass extinction?
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