The Cloud and the Underworld

I remember the first time somebody mentioned “The Cloud” to me, and I had to ask for clarification – it was early on in the era of wirelessness, and the idea that all of our data would automatically be syncing to storage on faraway servers seemed far in the future, though not unbelievable, to me.

But I remember instantly appreciating the marketing decisions that must have taken place around the name of this phenomenon. I don’t know where it came from – Apple, Google, Microsoft before their decline – but I can imagine a meeting of the best and brightest, with a white board covered in brainstormed possibilities – “How do we move away from this web, this net? Are we looking for some kind of water, river, flow metaphor? Currents? Tides?”

And whoever it was – maybe a lowly intern, turning the conversation to condensation, to something ethereal, vaporous… “what about a Cloud?”

It is really brilliant. Because our data leaves us (and returns) wirelessly through the air, and flows through cell towers and I suppose up and down from satellites, it’s so easy and appealing to imagine it actually living in empty space, in the heavens, somewhere above us, benevolent, ready to alight upon our devices when we call to it. A heavenly host of data angels.

And of course, the branding of internet-related things has, consciously or unconsciously, gravitated toward the heavenly. Two ready examples that spring to mind are “Angel Investors” – a beatific form of Silicon Valley venture capitalist I guess – and Google’s mission statement, “Don’t Be Evil.”

There’s a fair amount of writing already about the nuts and bolts that undergird this ethereal cloud – actual, physical infrastructure in old phone cables, relay stations, the reality of tangled nests of cords and wires that are still there, though successfully hidden from view.

But conceptually, I think it’s fair to say that we, the public, have thoroughly embraced the idea that we’re living in the cloud, untethered, floating free. Against this compelling imagery, Mark Zuckerberg’s idea of the “social graph,” though maybe useful, seems too clunky and mathematical to catch on as a brand.

For at least as long as Christian history, there has been a strong association between up as the direction of heaven, and down as the direction of hell. We may have thought that we got away from this in the age of Copernicus and the Enlightenment, with the charting of the solar system and the stars, but I think it’s mostly still true – the Hubble Space Telescope treats us to heavenly images of distant nebula, and the idea of space travel still holds a lot of the romance and terminology of exploring the heavens.

It’s only with Freud that the idea of the underworld is, in a sense, revived – as the dark and sticky realm of the unconscious, base impulses, subterranean desires. But based on my reading of Freud, it seems as though he treats the subconscious as a very personal, individual, even isolated phenomenon. It’s not until Jung’s ideas about the collective unconscious, and later archetypal psychologists (such as James Hillman, who I’m reading right now) that the idea of a topographical, shared underworld is really taken up again.

I’m only beginning to read about the Underworld, Hades, or the city of Dis as it’s variously called in different mythologies – but I’m struck already by how it may be a much more apt metaphor for our lives online than any kind of Cloud.

The underworld is where the dead reside, not exactly tormented but certainly stuck, wandering around a twilight world without time, perhaps dimly conscious of what’s going on in the daylight world above them. It is a place one ventures to in dreams, a surreal otherworld with its own rules and laws, full, perhaps, of dark desires and dull aches never resolved in the lives of its inhabitants.

It probably wouldn’t be accurate to say that the internet is exclusively the home of dark thoughts and impulses – it’s not a hell. But it seems like as it continues to evolve, it’s increasingly located more below than above us – it resembles a Hades at least as much as a Heaven, if not more so.

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