Mulching Metaphors

Mulching Metaphors

I am guilty of being a language scrutinizer. I’m compulsive. If I see a familiar word appear in a connotative structure, I immediately want to analyze the impact of it. I have had a long history and love affair with language devices that shake new meanings out of old reality, and this sensation is especially intensified if the word is used metaphorically. Such was my experience when I first encountered Windows 7 advertisements “To The Cloud”.  I had heard of technology’s  “cloud” before this but never really paid very much attention to it in this context.

On many language occasions I have found myself considering clouds — whether they were Wordsworth’s lonely ones, or Shelley’s with their  “lashing hail”. Whether they were the clouds of Thoreau, Shakespeare, or Saint Augustine that invited conversations, or the “corridors sublime” of  Browning , it seemed clouds were everywhere my early reading took me.

So too in the music I listened to. The Rolling Stones, Lightfoot, Pink Floyd, and the timeless Joni Mitchell shouted, ushered, and eased clouds into my head.  In art, Rothko and Blake set forth their cloud metaphors, and while Georgia O’Keeffe stood on them to paint, Freda Kahlo plummeted through them in painful descent. How about the indelible “cloud busting” scene of Robins Williams and Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King? I think clouds have served me well in my need to know them and be entertained by them.

So what was I to make of the CEO that could quit his job because of “the cloud”? What about the couple stranded in the airport who are lucky enough to connect their laptop to a program called Celebrity Probation in order to kill time? ( “Yea Cloud!”)  Or the real deal-sealer where the frazzled mom gets to “photoshop” real life frenzy from a family photo and replace it with family “cloud” serenity. (“Thanks cloud.”).

As I discovered after a little more cloud-hopping,  “the cloud” and its surname “cloud computing” have been around a long time. Like all interesting words and phrases these names were born in mythology. Some say the term “cloud” in this new context was first coined in an MIT paper by Sharon Gillett in 1996. Others say the term was already appearing in discussions at O'Reilly Media in 1992. Some say Eric Schmidt of Google was the first to be recorded as using the phrase “cloud computing” in 2006 and that maybe it  was spawned  from Mircosoft’s 2001 term “Hailstorm” that announced its .NET services.. (Shouldn’t that have been the other way around?) Legend has it that document gurus NetCentric tried to trademark the term “cloud computing” in 1997 but didn’t.  Whatever forces brought these words into the lexicon of computer life did a pretty good job of imprinting. If I Google” cloud computing” I get more than 20 million hits.

But what of the metaphor itself?  It’s difficult not to be impressed with the far-ranging metaphors that the universe of computing has generated. Some of my personal favorites are the simple ones like web, library, cyberspace, cookie, firewall, streaming, twitter, gopher, phishing, virus, and troll. These more or less work in a pedestrian way. There is also arresting jargon that grabs my attention on occasion. I mean I have to stop and scrutinize phrases like” cappuccino cowboy”,” sacrificial host”,” wack-a-mole” or “clue-by-four” just to see if they have legs. Little wonder that the rich and varied language that computers and their technology have produced demanded that Quinstreet Inc.  create an entire website dedicated to it.

But metaphor will always be more than just a language trick, of course, and because it functions on a more complex meaning level, it can lose its energy quickly if someone tries to exploit it without the skill to do so. The cloud metaphor doesn’t work for me. It just seems so out of step with other effective internet metaphors. I want it to work. I can visualize the potential idea, but it just falls short of my expectation. I don’t quite understand how such a potentially great metaphor can get smeared in the cross-purposes it seems to have inherited from all the tech writers who want to exploit it. And that’s the way it is when you ask language to work overtime. Sometimes the magic cannot be created by just anyone nor conjured for everyone. I’m with Oracle’s CEO Larry Ellison that there is a defined characteristic of “gibberish” attached to this term. In the final analysis … I have looked at “the cloud” from both sides now and find the one in the tech world “wanting”.



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