7 May, 2012Issue 19.2Politics & SocietyTechnology

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Cloud Capitalism

Alexander Barker

BritishRob Coley and Dean Lockwood
Cloud Time: The Inception of the Future
Zero Books, 2012
127 pages
ISBN: 978-1780990958


Cloud computing is “the systematised virtualisation of data storage and access, the coalescence of power into an instantly available utility, ready for any eventuality”. It has long been the next big thing, its advent increasingly feasible and inexorable as Internet speeds surge. The phenomenon has attracted the inevitable cluster of cheerleaders, who have spread the good news with messianic fervour all the way from Silicon Valley shareholder meetings to that most glorified of business seminars, TED. While the financial crisis spelled the end of untrammelled and overweening capitalism, in the view of many, the Internet contains the seeds of a quiet evolution to a new and efficient “sharing economy”. In a new book, Cloud Time: The Inception of the Future, the sceptical intent of authors Rob Coley and Dean Lockwood comes as a most welcome antidote to this uncritical techno-utopianism. They lay bare the propensity of these new cyberspaces to structure the actions and interactions of their users. Ultimately, however, they fail to ground this analysis in sufficient detail, attempting instead to extend their insight to our present economy and politics as a whole.

There are several possible critiques of cloud computing. Concerns about data privacy are already well-developed, and worries about corporate enclosure are gathering momentum. Coley and Lockwood choose to elaborate a third avenue of disquiet: the way cloudspace structures the interactions of its participants. As we increasingly upload entire spheres of our activity to the cloud, more and more areas of our lives fall under this shaping influence.

Cloud Time employs the conceit of a video game world to illustrate the mode of control instantiated by cloud computing. The concept is familiar from Foucault. Whereas traditionally power has been understood as the capacity of one agent to prevent another agent from acting as she pleases, Foucault argued that in our society it has increasingly operated in the form not of preventing but of generating and channelling desires and projects in the agent. The rules of a video game cannot be seen merely as fetters on a pre-existing agent because the agent only exists in the video game’s world in virtue of those rules. The same point can be made with the laws of physics or the rules of chess: these norms simultaneously enable and steer the agent. Coley and Lockwood argue that the very creation of our identities in cyberspace is inseparable from a similar manipulation.

The thesis that our ability to navigate the cloud is subtly shaped and guided by those who have created and continue to own its structures is compelling. The trouble is that the authors spend little time exploring the precise mode in which this control takes place or grounding the ethical reasons why this might be troubling. They state, “You will be disappointed if you hope for a technical manual.” It soon becomes apparent that they intend to use cloud computing itself as a metaphor for a much wider phenomenon, an entire “cultural, social and political logic”, which they call cloud capitalism. Yet given that their analysis of cyberspace control was already an extension of theories of societal control developed by Foucault and Deleuze, there is little innovation in using cyberspace control as an illustration of the wider phenomenon. Sure enough, the reader learns little from the passages on the wider phenomenon of cloud capitalism that has not already been explored in the work of Mark Fisher or Slavoj Zizek.

Although their emulation of Zizekian rhapsody is dizzying and impressive, one feels it inhibits a truly incisive examination of the very real threat of the corporate colonisation of cyberspace. Just as with their preferred interpretation of Das Kapital—as a Victorian novel centred on the eponymous monstrous protagonist, “Capital”—this playful style, with trademark cult film and pop culture references, seems to imply a renunciation, an acceptance of the impossibility of resistance. Yet surely it is still possible to go beyond a lyrical meditation on our impending fate? Most disappointingly, the authors leave untouched the urgent question of what it is about Foucauldian control—in cyberspace or in politics—that merits our resistance. They condemn the manipulation inherent in the cloud business model. Yet, to return to the video game analogy, we may choose to accept the rules of the system in exchange for the freedom and pleasure it promises us. They might appeal to the disrespect of human dignity implicit in such manipulation, but they do not fully explore this. On the other hand, the worry might be contained in their prophesy of the inevitable boredom of a citizenry virtually granted their every wish. But it does not seem certain that a corporate system aware of this possibility would not solve this by reintroducing the sort of constraints that Coley and Lockwood feel are indispensable to a fulfilled life.

Furthermore, Cloud Time contains no practical suggestions as to how to overcome the impending situation, which seems somewhat defeatist; might it not be possible to create alternative cyberspaces, or even to seize control of the existing means of virtual production and implement democratically chosen and equitable structures with truly fulfilled human activity as their raison d’être? If the authors find this too hopeful, they neglect to show that cyberspace must inherently be constituted of exploitative structures.

Cloud Time‘s apparent promise of an anatomy of capitalist digitalisation does much to dismantle the current idyllic vision of the cloud. The authors, however, in seeking to develop their insight into a full dissection of our entire zeitgeist, are distracted both from exploring the detail of techno-economic exploitation and from offering even broad speculation into strategies of resistance.

Alexander Barker is reading for a DPhil in Political Theory at Lincoln College, Oxford University. He is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.