III. A Gathering of Clouds

“Magicked into being by the inscrutable laws of the atmosphere, clouds exist in a constant state of flux, shifting effortlessly from one form to another.”

—Gavin Pretor-Pinney, The Cloud Collector’s Handbook

Clouds are boundary objects. They float between sky and earth, accidentally painting themselves into shapes for us. They have simple components – dust, water vapor, pressure fronts – in complex configurations. They can be as big as skyscrapers, fast as cars, beautiful and destructive. They return what we give them; when we pollute, they pollute.

As boundary objects, clouds are rich in artistic symbolism. Deities of many cultures are depicted perched on clouds, surveying their mortals. Clouds can separate foreground from background, real from unreal. They can represent danger or serenity or nothing at all. Sometimes their only job is to demonstrate the artist’s artistic prowess, as they are quite difficult to capture.

“You cannot measure the sun, but you can measure a photograph of the sun with a ruler.”

—Bruno Latour, Visualisation and Cognition: Drawing Things Together, 1983

Clouds are good painting teachers. They’re made of layers rather than lines. That’s how painters learn to see – blocks of color rather than discrete objects. The goal isn’t to capture a particular cloud in a singular instance, but to capture the character of that type of cloud at that time of day. Painting a cloud requires looseness and control, knowledgable use of media, and subtle use of color.

For photographers, clouds are part of the medium. The same shapeshifting nature that makes clouds difficult to paint makes them a joy to photograph. They can serve as subject, backdrop, and light diffuser. Working outside with electronic equipment, photographers must also learn to read clouds for weather threats.

“And suddenly that tranquil world, the world of such simple harmony that you discover as you rise above the clouds, took on an unfamiliar quality in my eyes. …  That viscous whiteness was turning before my eyes into the boundary between the real and the unreal, between the known and the unknowable.”

—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Wind, Sand and Stars, 1939

One of the most widely used models to represent the workings of the mind is an iceberg, suspended at the surface of a salty sea, bobbing above a limitless darkness. Only a small portion is exposed. One English word for informed thought, to “fathom,” is derived from a “fathom” or unit for measuring the depth of oceans. Subconscious processing and memory storage are often referred to as “deep” and “murky.” Extending this analogy upwards, cloud computing is the evaporation of millions of personal icebergs into the ether. When we pollute, they pollute.

Cloud computing provides an opportunity to shift this iceberg/ocean paradigm in two key ways: as a platform for distributed cognition and idea storage, and as a neatly suitable metaphor for conceptualizing the structure of thought. The taxonomy of clouds, categorized according to height and density, is particularly well-suited to the task of conceptualizing distinct processes of short- and long-term memory storage, and subconscious processing.

“When I said the Cloud may be alive I meant that the material inside it may be organised in an intricate fashion, so that its behaviour and consequently the behaviour of the whole Cloud is far more complex than we previously supposed.”

—Fred Hoyle, The Black Cloud, 1957

Cloud-gazing, generally, is a more pleasant pastime than unstructured introspection. It can even provide a pleasant structure for introspection – nature’s Rorschach. Returning to our metaphor, vaporizing thoughts from the iceberg to the ether can be a therapeutic experience as well. Digitization translates ideas and images from subconsciousness to consciousness to collective consciousness. Voicing your mind feels good, getting validation feels better. It’s like watching your thoughts drift away as harmless cotton balls, adding to the charm of a sunny day.

Though a cloud’s components are simple, its forces are complex. It’s extremely hard to predict how these clouds and forces will interact with each other. Innocuous radar blips turn into lethal hurricanes, pollution spreads across continents. This is happens in the internet’s metaphorical cloud kingdom as well; anger has been named the most viral emotion.

“On the descriptive level, an iconic sign acquires the value of an index: just as a painter has no way of representing the movements of the soul other than through their bodily manifestations, he will depict wind, or a storm and so on, by means of their visible effects. On the expressive level, a sign takes on the value of a symbol (‘the air itself is terrible from the deep darkness caused by the dust and fog and heavy clouds’).”

—Hubert Damisch, A Theory of /Cloud/: Toward a History of Painting, 2002

The brain stores sensory information in two successive stages: memories are first placed in short-term storage, and then moved to long-term storage later on. These storage functions take place, according to the results of the most up-to-date scientific imaging apparatus, in physically distinct areas of the brain. Information is moved from short-term to long-term banks overnight, during REM sleep cycles. These categories span, then, across multiple dimensions of measurement: cognitive information is moved quite literally across time, space, and metaphorical framing as our ideas of “today” are recategorized into “yesterday.”

Extending this to our metaphor, we can think of low-level clouds as vectors for our short-term memory, mid-level clouds as long-term, and high-level clouds as the invisible but impactful subconscious. The sky is the average of all the icebergs, inverted and dispersed. The internet’s sky has little cumulus puffs of daily selfies, ominous stratus fogs of chronic hate speech, and utopic cirrus wisps of true social progress through interconnectivity.