Transcript for Rob Coley & Dean Lockwood on "Cloud Time"

  Jim Fleming: How much of your digital data lives in the Cloud? Family photos? Financial information? Medical files? Many of us store increasingly large chunks of personal and private information in the cloud. And if that doesn't worry you now, it will when you read Rob Coley and Dean Lockwood's book 'Cloud Time: The Inception of the Future'. Although the Cloud's often described as a utopian digital commons, Coley and Lockwood see a dystopian side. Dean Lockwood explains cloud culture.

Dean Lockwood: Cloud culture is the emergence of a new phenomenon in computing - the idea of the cloud, which actually there's a great deal of debate over how precisely to define what the cloud is. But essentially, on a technical level, the cloud is what happens when computing becomes virtualized. That is, the importance of personal computers is declining. More and more stuff that we access - software, our files, and so on - is now being stored in the cloud in server farms, which are quite mysterious places. So, we don't need PCs so much anymore, we don't need to be carrying all this stuff around with us. We don't need to be doing programming. The dirty work of computing is now virtualized - it's elsewhere, and we can access the cloud, the Internet, through whatever devices we choose - our tablets, our smartphones. So the cloud is really kind of the shift away from personal computing to a whole other kind of computing.

Fleming: Now so far, of course, what you're describing is what its supporters describe exactly as the great benefit of it. You don't need to have that land-line lock anymore - you can have all your information wherever you are. I hear a little bit of suspicion, though, in your voice when you talk about cloud culture.

Lockwood: More than a little bit of suspicion. Essentially, our argument is that this whole revolution in computing is a move towards a more total integration of the users of computers and computing devices, and it's a state of always-on, always-connected, and it does open up an immense number of possibilities for creativity, for collaborating, for working in teams, and for companies to network in that way. But it also is a way of harvesting that kind of creativity, as well. So we see this as a way of mobilizing the multitude, you might say. The idea of the digital commons; it has its upside, but also, Cloud computing lays that open to a certain kind of enclosure, a certain kind of control, is our argument.

Fleming: Well it kind of takes advantage of people, too. It gives the company the opportunity to harvest the ideas of people, wherever and whoever they are?

Lockwood: That's right, yeah. [To Rob Coley] Did you want to chip in here?

Rob Coley: Yeah, it might be interesting to just go back to our point of departure on this which was a think-tank report written in the UK, authored by a guy called Charles Leadbeater - and this was published two years ago. And it was endorsed by the Labour Party here in power at the time. And this is where this kind of idea of cloud culture starts to come about. The cloud and this kind of logic of computing is just one aspect of a complete cultural shift that this document describes, and the government sees as really essential to, well, the creative industries, but also the industrialization of invention in our every-day lives, so that we all become creative people regardless of whether we actually are web programmers or photographers or whatever else. And yes, to an extent we think that's great, but this is all kind of unpaid labor for a start - this is ways of generating the new ideas which can be monetized and extracted and utilized in various ways. Yeah, we don't receive any great advantage for this.

Fleming: I can see that there are a lot of different aspects to this, some of which are good, and some of which are a little concerning. That article that Charles Leadbeater wrote, he wrote - and you quoted I think - "Cloud capitalists will want to harvest all that they can from their Clouds, which means turning you and me, our preferences and interactions, into pieces of information to be analyzed by algorithms." Do you see that as a depersonalization of the computer user?

Lockwood: I think it is a depersonalization - I don't think cloud computing and cloud culture is really interested in us as individuals - I think it wants to transform us into data-sets. The philosopher Gilles Deleuze talked about "dividuals", and I think that's precisely the word that we ought to describe we we are becoming in this new cloud ecology, this new world of computing.

Fleming: I don't know which one of you wants to answer this, maybe Dean, you've thought about it a little bit. You talked about this access to the Cloud, this use of the cloud by us, and to us, as being similar to the Christopher Nolan film, 'Inception'. Is that the same kind of 'you don't know where you are' thing?

Lockwood: With the shift into cloud culture becomes a shift in forms of power, I think. So, we're used to thinking of power as something that is exerted over us, by something that stands over against us - an authority, or a powerful body. And now, as you see in the film 'Inception', it's power that's actually exerted from within our desires, from within our dreams, and from within our aspirations - they're modulated, they're controlled, they're tinkered with. So I think that cloud capitalism engenders a certain kind of desire - it modulates our desires. It's a kind of non-conscious presence within our interactions in the world.

Fleming: Does someone benefit from this?

Lockwood: I don't think there's any kind of 'Wizard of Oz' set there behind the curtain pulling the strings. I think it's more of a logic - it's a systemic phenomenon.

Fleming: I confess I'm having a little trouble wrapping my head around it - I hear the concerns that you're expressing, and believe me, they make me nervous - but I'm wondering, well first of all, is it even possible to avoid this? We're now definitely in a world where the Cloud is a part of our daily interaction with each other.

Lockwood: That's right. I'm not sure it's avoidable in terms of older forms of protest, older forms of resistance - I don't think you can simply opt out or drop out of cloud culture. We don't come up with any fantastic ideas for resistance in the book.  I mean, the book is quite pessimistic.  In fact, it was really conceived as a kind of horror story, I guess you'd say. And we actually make use of horror fictions and dystopian science-fictions in order to express this kind of cramped space in which we find ourselves.

Fleming: It actually is maybe more easily understood if you use some of those illustrations. Rob, there's a chapter in the book called 'Parasite Regime', and in that one you write that if capital were an animal, it would be a cephalopod- an octopus or a squid. Now, all of those cephalopods, an octopus or a squid, are extraordinarily intelligent and sensitive beings, but I guess you're not using it as a comforting thought, are you?

Coley: No. Again, one of the critiques I suppose of this idea of anthropomorphizing power would be that it's a problematic thing to do, is to kind of turn capital into a creature or something that we fear in that way. But we kind of find this is a useful way of describing our relation with capital. It's not something that can be boxed off, if you'd like. This is why we describe it in terms of a viral thing, in terms of a parasitical thing which eats away at us but we kind of eat away at it - we're kind of part of this ecology.

Fleming: Now that we have that image of the octopus firmly in mind, we ought to go back and talk about cloud capitalism, because with that image there it seems a little more vivid. When you say 'cloud capitalism', what exactly is it you mean?

Lockwood: Well in the first instance, these behemoth-like, Amazon, and Google, and these growing concerns which have already found many different ways of capitalizing upon our connections to the Internet. But they're just the start of it - this is a field that's open for new kinds of power, new kinds of allegiances or alliances between corporate and governmental interests. So it's not just about capital, it's also about security and securing the future against terror, against risk, against contingency. So one of the central arguments of the book is that cloud computing and cloud culture can be seen as a way of trying to inoculate vested interests against the risky potentials inherent in the future.

Fleming: But isn't cloud capitalism, or cloud culture, also an opportunity to bring people more together?

Coley: Yeah, and we think that's kind of precisely where the crisis of this new logic of power lies, really - that often the solution presented by forms of resistance is based on relationships. Simply by coming together and by forming a kind of assemblage, or a multitude, we structure some form of resistance by being stronger together, if you like. And a part of what we're saying is that those old forms of resistance in a way have been co-opted.

Fleming: Turned against us.

Coley: Precisely. These kind of logics of power actually want us to come together and form relationships because in doing that we also generate vast amounts of information, we provide these relations that are also based on algorithmic structures - they operate within the protocols of the kind of network structures through which we communicate. So these are no longer realms which we can be completely safe in, if you like.

Fleming: Do you both see this as a kind of horror story?

Lockwood: I mean, yes, but it's also a device - it's a way of expressing these concerns. One of the concepts we don't actually talk about a great deal in the book, but which we're interest in, is a concept of fabulation. What fabulation suggests is that it's spinning out of a tale, which is a way of creating a truth, but it's also a way of testing the limits of truths, and to some extent, falsifying and dismantling them and finding out other potentials and other truths, if you like. There's a role for a kind of poetic approach, a fabulatory approach, using fictions in order to pry open this phenomenon. Rather than sticking too closely to its technical manifestations, we wanted to unravel the metaphors and the rhetoric that underpin cloud culture.

Fleming: Dean Lockwood and Rob Coley are the co-authors of 'Cloud Time: The Inception of the Future'.

Comments for this interview

Antediluvian metaDeleuzianism (RT, 09/22/2013 - 8:18am)

Succeeds in insulting sophomores. And capitalist Cephalopods. Who publishes this slop? "Zero" Books, appropriately.

"Senior Lecturer in Media Theory" - good grief.