In the twentieth century, the word “cloud” referred simply to either (a) a visible mass of condensed water vapor floating in the atmosphere, or (b) to make something murky, or less clear. Now, we add another definition to this list, thanks to the emergence of a new type of cloud: (c) a network of servers that store data and run software (ie. the Internet). In this post, I’ll be reviewing the history of the cloud as a symbol and make a case for its new contemporary symbolism in relation to the digital sublime. Leggo.
Across nearly all world religions, the cloud is a signifier of the divine. A cloud pillar led the Israelites out of Egypt and across the desert to the Promised Land; for the Mesopotamians, Egyptians and Greeks, the cloud represented creation, fertility, divine power, and protection. In China and India, representations of the Divine were accompanied by clouds. In much of the mystical writings of the world, the cloud expresses the aphophatic nature of the divine, the unknowable, that which will forever elude our human understanding. This profound insight has been expressed through the cloud symbol across cultures.
The cloud has represented the mysteries and profundity of human consciousness in religion and spiritualism, but also throughout the history of art. Thomas Cole once wrote that the sky is “the soul of all scenery”. Early European painting portrayed the sky as a divine backdrop associated with the heavens. In these religious paintings, the clouds may seem to take on a decorative aura, but they really function as a setting for the manifestation of God. Fast forward to 19th century England, when John Constable became so obsessed with painting clouds that, for a period between 1821 and 1822, he dropped the landscape altogether and devoted himself exclusively to painting cloud studies. Then came René Magritte, who used clouds to create surrealist dream-like experiences. Magritte said that his paintings were “visible images which conceal nothing; they evoke mystery and, indeed, when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question, ‘What does that mean?’. It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable.”
Entering the end of the twentieth century, the cloud took on a darker symbolism, one of destruction, looming death, and terror. The mushroom clouds that formed after the atomic bombs detonated on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are now icons of worldwide terror and conflict. The satellite images of hurricane Katrina‘s spiralling storm clouds epitomize the vast uncontrollability of natural forces, making our lives feel trivial in comparison to the grandiose of Mother Nature. It seemed as though any conceivable silver lining had been forgotten.
However, this dread associated with the cloud is in line with our definitions of the sublime. You’ll remember from Post 1, that Burke defined the Sublime as “what has the power to compel and destroy us. It produces shock, awe, and destabilization”. The Sublime is both beautiful and dangerous, which is what makes it so enticing.
Clouds are, by nature, transient and ever-changing. They are beyond our control, and they elude solid representation and decidability by being constantly in flux. They are shifting gaseous metaphors for our fragile human lives.
Now, in the twenty first century, the cloud occupies a new, yet no less liminal and invisible space. With the emergence of the Internet came the digital cloud, and, in turn, an onslaught of cloud imagery in mass media. The appeal of the cloud image is applied to desktop screensavers, logos and icons, as well as product packaging. The cloud today symbolizes interconnectedness, rapidity, and accessibility. Our definition of this new cloud is as a collective storage system to which we all contribute and have access to. ☁︎ The cloud is essentially an ever-expanding global brain: it houses our memories (photographs), thoughts (tweets and status updates), social interactions (Facebook activity), academic accomplishments (e-journals, articles, and online courses), and collective ‘street smarts’ (Google searches).
A couple hundred years ago, the cloud was the epitome of the natural sublime.
Today, the digital cloud is the epitome of the technological sublime.
“Put enough data into the cloud, crank up the search engine, and you’ve got an all-knowing mind” – W. Tecumesch Fitch
So, at what point does the cloud cease to be seen as a network of minds, and begin to function as it’s own individual entity? Sure, a computer with access to the cloud can ‘fake’ intelligence by using a powerful search engine to scan the database, but can it really be said to have a mind of its own? The reaction to the idea of true artificial intelligence is one of both terror and excitement. What we are moving towards is the digital sublime... that same mysterious attraction to something that holds the power to both compel and destroy us.