Guest column: The Internet Cloud

Cartoonists have gotten plenty of mileage out of the information superhighway, it's true. But when it comes to drawing the Internet, the icon of choice -- from the MIT Media Lab to trade-show floors, from Intel's marketing blitzes to the PowerPoint slides of Robertson Stephens analysts -- is a cloud.

Mostly, they slip past unnoticed. But once you wonder "Why a cloud?" each new flowchart doodle begs the question. Pay attention, and suddenly spotting the Internet cloud is like spying "11:11" on LCD clocks -- the more you notice it, the more often it occurs, and you can't tell if it's because you're noticing, or if the clouds really are multiplying. And, in any case, the more you see it, the more difficult it is not to suppose it has meaning. Is the cloud trying to tell us something? And if so, what?

For one thing, clouds are easy to draw. There's no doubt about this. If you've ever tried mapping cyberspace in a hurry -- in front of a prospective business partner or client, say -- you know the cloud's advantage. Plus, there's another, subtle advantage to the cloud: you can use it to obscure what you don't know. Also, clouds are, after all, rainmakers -- optimistic symbols of cash waiting to flow. Given the rise of engineer-CEOs, you can't be blamed for assuming that the cloud reflects a whiteboard vision of heaven on earth. Just as Jehovah guided the Israelites as a pillar of cloud, perhaps to technophiles who have occasion to sketch it, the Net is a holy condensation of bits or, for that matter, a holy terror.

"The physicist John Wheeler has famously declared that the world as seen through the lens of quantum mechanics is like 'a great smokey dragon'," notes Margaret Wertheim, author of The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet.

"Instead of having clear boundaries and contours, reality seems to dissolve into a hazy fuzz. In a sense, something similar goes on with the reality of the Net. It too is like a great ill-defined fuzz with no clear boundaries and distinctions. Where does the Net end? Where does it start?"

Indeed, the great cloud of unknowing has many disciples, among them Jon Lebowsky, a Well veteran and online community director for Behind our graphic user interfaces, says the Big Lebowsky, lurks "a dark unreality where the volume of interconnections is beyond the imaginable. Your average Dilbert cloaks this chaos of signal and noise with the kind of cloud the Littlest Angel used to hover round, thinking to encapsulate the vast, active, living, intelligent system on the head of a pin."

Like a cloud, the Net can't be pinned down -- it's alive, unpredictable, and, as innumerable startups learn, can prove a funnel cloud or even a Bengali typhoon. "When the Internet is depicted as cumulus humilis, it's dead wrong," says John Chambers, the CEO of networking giant Cisco Systems. "It's much more altostratus -- intense, rapid -- and a failure to give it proper respect can result in disaster."

Ask the founders of the Net about the cloud, and it quickly becomes apparent that the Net cloud is as old as the Net itself.

"We always drew networks as amoeba-like things because they had no fixed topology and typically covered varying geographic areas," says Vint Cerf, cocreator of TCP/IP, the language of networked computers. In short, no one needs to know the exact route their data will take to get from point to point. Everything is fine as long as it comes out of the cloud at the correct address.

"As this Internet was being conceived, diagrams would be drawn to illustrate some design idea," testifies Net architect Bob Taylor. "Some used cloudlike sketches to represent the Internet itself while focusing on other things, like servers or gateways. Variations of these early diagrams ultimately made their way into the literature."

Novelist William Gibson, who coined the word "cyberspace" in his classic novel Neuromancer, first encountered the Net-as-cloud metaphor while preparing for his first video teleconference. He asked the tech guys how the signals would travel across the Net. It's not going across the Net, they told him. It's going through "the cloud" -- through the totality of all the phone links in the world.

"Clouds are numinous," Gibson says. "But the cloud's main usefulness lies in its vagueness, like cyberspace -- a word which is also useful for its vagueness. Or perhaps," he adds, "people are thinking of thought balloons in comics."

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