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LIFE

How the language of the internet has evolved

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 October, 2015, 9:46pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 October, 2015, 9:46pm

For most of us, how we perceive the internet is significantly shaped by the language used to describe it: say "web" and dew-dropped silk comes to mind; "net" and woven knots of string; "information superhighway" and bright cars racing in the dark.

These names describe a system of disparate machines, giving shape to the network. Which name we choose has a large effect on how we perceive the structures that carry our photos, emails, bank balances and other data.

With the shift in the infrastructure as all this information became stored remotely came a shift in language, and of perception. Now so central to our lives, how did the language of the internet, and the cloud, evolve?

The symbols on our screens are things we can manipulate in the real world: cogs, pulleys, files, magnifying glasses, binoculars, waste paper bins, compasses, calendars. These pictures use pre-digital imagery as a way to represent invisible processes. "You may not be able to see what is really happening inside this box," they tell us. "But it is in your control."

When computers first spread in use, these symbols made it easier for technology firms to communicate what our machines were doing. Many of them are still used today.

If the tendency has been to ground computer interactions in the language of industry, the symbolism of the cloud goes in the opposite direction. "You may not be able to see what is really happening inside your rectangle," the cloud tells us. "But it doesn't matter. It doesn't even happen in there any more. It happens in something you cannot hope to grip."

The irony, of course, is that you can grip it. The cloud is not an invisible layer of data. It is a network of buildings full of servers. It uses a network of remote computers to process and store data instead of a single machine, but it is still a physical process.

The last thing corporations or governments who are mining our data would want is for us to manifest online as ethereal creatures: our personal data is prized for the vivid, defined portraits it produces of us as consumers and, perhaps secondly, citizens
Laurence Scott, author of The Four-Dimensional Human

As a term, the cloud has been around since at least 1996, when Compaq Computer engineers published a paper on the benefits of investing in "cloud computing-enabled applications". One year later, Steve Jobs talked about moving storage from local machines to shared servers.

Fast forward to 2011 and Google introduced the Chromebook - a laptop with most data and applications living on the cloud. Now, Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud and OneDrive all offer remote storage solutions. As less data is stored on hard drives, our private lives increasingly centre on the cloud.

As a name, the cloud is at once a fluffy, approachable means to digest a global network of servers. It is also a vague, formless entity that grows and shrinks above our heads. In terms of privacy, it represents an important change in how we think about our data; stored in the arms of an invisible force, at once everywhere and nowhere.

Laurence Scott, author of The Four-Dimensional Human, says: "To me the most striking thing about the semantics of the cloud is how the amorphousness it promises is in direct opposition to the commercial and political agendas at play within it.

"The last thing corporations or governments who are mining our data would want is for us to manifest online as ethereal creatures: our personal data is prized for the vivid, defined portraits it produces of us as consumers and, perhaps secondly, citizens."

This isn't to say that those companies have shady intentions in mind, but the symbol they use is nevertheless a mirage. If icons on the internet have previously aimed at elucidating a vast network of integrated machines and processes, the cloud signals a movement towards incomprehensibility.

"You can touch your screen as much as you like," it says, "but what happens away from that is out of your hands.

"Don't worry. You wouldn't understand it anyway."

The Guardian