Cloud computing as Digital Imaginary. A critical making approach to user perceptions and experiences
Cloud computing provides ready access to data, anywhere, anytime through a one-click connection to centralised data storage. For the user the physicality of cloud computing is reduced to a browser icon. While highly convenient, users have concerns regarding privacy, security, and data surveillance, and don’t understand the technology. This suggests an imaginary of the cloud as benign, poetic and immaterial.
How does the metaphor of the cloud shape how users imagine cloud computing? This research investigates how users understand, perceive and imagine the hidden technology of cloud computing. Participatory design methodology was employed with groups of cloud computing users. Data was gathered using visual narrative methodology through a Cloud Drawing exercise and Follow-up interview. Stimulus Images of clouds in the arts and cloud computing industry further revealed how participants imagine the cloud. Findings informed a critical making methodology that addressed the immaterial nature of cloud computing through physical artefacts inspired by participant responses.
An exhibition of the artefacts provided a phenomenological encounter with diverse cloud narratives for new participants’ responses. An enclosed server cabinet exploring the first theme of Surveillance uses video, Pepper’s Ghost magic illusion, and smoke. Viewers observe an imaginary of mobile connection to the cloud that incorporates a panoptical vision from an all-seeing eye above. The second themed artefact, Factory, portrays a system-wide imaginary of cloud computing infrastructure through a network of fibre optic strands, and transparent user figurines. A third artefact, Noosphere, presents an imaginary of cloud computing as a technology that enables knowledge sharing and social connection. A networked bust containing an interactive element empowers the viewer to distribute light and knowledge horizontally. The artefacts have a dual purpose – a manifestation of the critical making process, and a means to gather further participant feedback.
Through critical making I intentionally used physical means to explore the digital technology of centralised cloud computing. Photographs and drawings provide documentation of the creative process, moving the research into a digital format. The digital capture of the work is recorded, while the physical experience through light, smoke and interactive elements is no longer possible. A final record of the artefacts and accompanying research will reside in digital form in the finite, digital shadow of the cloud, and in a physical book.
This research highlights the imbalance between users’ imaginaries of the cloud, the physical reality of the industry, and the metaphor it uses to advertise itself. While the growing cloud computing industry, with a market total of US$214 billion in 2019 alone, is driven by users’ streaming of video and music, it also enables data surveillance, and impacts on the environment (Gartner, n.d.). For cloud computing companies, including Google, Facebook and Amazon, the aim is delivery of a working product rather than a trusted one. My research seeks to address this imbalance through investigating users’ experience of the cloud. Through cloud artefacts that function as models of the cloud, this research provides a record of the human experience of the invisible digital cloud.