Clouds: The Most Useful Metaphor of All Time?

In plays, poems, songs, and novels, clouds stand in for everything from bad philosophy to the many incarnations of a soul

Ah, the cloud. It sounds dreamlike, ethereal. But of course, when we talk about "the cloud," we are not talking about mist-like data hanging out in the ether, but massive computer servers, powered by generators, cooled by air conditioners, and stored in warehouses. More mechanical than magical.

Despite this gap between imagery and actuality, "the cloud" has succeeded in becoming the agreed-upon shorthand for modern data storage. Where did this name come from? And why has it stuck?

As far as it relates to computers, the term "cloud" dates back to early network design, when engineers would map out all the various components of their networks, but then loosely sketch the unknown networks (like the Internet) theirs was hooked into. What does a rough blob of undefined nodes look like? A cloud. And, helpfully, clouds are something that take little skill to draw. It's a squiggly line formed into a rough ellipse. Over time, clouds were adopted as the stand-in image for the part of a computer or telephone network outside one's own.

Tech 2020 Over the last decade, the term "the cloud" has moved from its provenance among computer engineers to common usage, via the vectors of Amazon's Elastic Cloud Compute (EC2), first released in 2006, and Apple's iCloud, announced earlier this year. Clearly, the marketing brains behind these operations realized that the term cloud was a far more lovely, far more consumer-friendly term than, say, remote data storage. The engineering term 'the cloud' now has widespread resonance in society.

What is it about clouds that has such sticking power? Clouds get traction as a metaphor because they are shape-shifters, literally. As a result they can stand in for many varied cultural tropes. Want something to represent the one thing marring your otherwise perfect situation? Done. Want to evoke the nostalgic feeling of childhood games of the imagination? Done. Maybe you want to draw a picture of heaven? You're in luck. Clouds as metaphors pepper our language: every cloud has a silver lining, I'm on cloud nine, his head is in the clouds, there are dark clouds on the horizon. Clouds are the lazy man's metaphor, a one-image-fits-all solution for your metaphor needs.

Because of this flexibility, they commonly appear in our books and music. Perhaps the earliest example is in Aristophanes's play, The Clouds, in which clouds are the play's chorus and playwright's voice, but also symbolize the trendy philosophical fluff that Aristophanes was skewering. In a 14th-century mystical text The Cloud of Unknowing, God is surrounded by a darkness, or a "cloud of unknowing" that can only be accessed through feeling and love, not through knowledge. In 1802 William Wordsworth invoked a lonely cloud to represent his solitude, writing, "I wandered lonely as a cloud/That floats on high o'er vales and hills/When all at once I saw a crowd,/A host of golden daffodils;/Beside the lake, beneath the trees,/Fluttering and dancing in the breeze." Philosophical fluff, the unknowability of God, loneliness -- is there anything a pack of moisture droplets can't represent?

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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