Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Steven Shaviro reviews A Prehistory of the Cloud

Tung-Hui Hu. A Prehistory of the Cloud. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2015. 240 pp.

Review by Steven Shaviro

25 February 2016

Tung-Hui Hu's A Prehistory of the Cloud offers an indispensable look at the network structures that encompass and organize our lives today. Though Hu calls his book a "prehistory," it might just as well be called an archaeology, in both the Foucaultian and the more conventional senses of this term. Like Michel Foucault, Hu uncovers the sedimented historical layers beneath the seemingly all-new structures of the internet and particularly of its latest incarnation as the "cloud." But like a more traditional archaeologist, Hu also excavates the material underpinnings of the exceedingly abstract communications and computing processes that we ordinarily take for granted. The book is carefully organized as it moves through four levels of organization: from the network infrastructure, through the virtualization software that allows millions of users to run their own programs and data, to the vast data storage processes that constitute what we generally think of as the "cloud," and finally to the ways that data are collated and "mined," and the power relations that result from all this. Where the network appears to us in everyday use as instantaneous and transparent (at least when we don't encounter bugs, glitches, and netlag), Hu recovers for us the spatial and temporal thickness that makes this functioning possible. He notes, for instance, how fiber optic cable lines often follow the same routes as nineteenth-century railroads, and how data storage centers are often located in buildings that originally served as military bunkers during the cold war. But these physical underpinnings are just the beginning, for Hu also demonstrates how social and ideological formations are grounded in, and also work to alter, these material infrastructures. He traces the production of the logic that defines us as "users" and that forces us to assent to forms of securitization and control. This latter takes on especially disturbing overtones, for Hu demonstrates that, all too often, movements that seek to contest the ways that corporations and the military deploy Big Data as a means of surveillance and control end up replicating the very logic that they sought to oppose. All in all, this is an insightfully original and sobering book, one that adds an important dimension to our current academic and popular discussions of the power and effects of digital networks. Hu shows us the continuities and transformations that underlie our fictions of a neat "break" between the past and the present or between the analog and the digital. More generally, Hu traces the politics of surveillance and control, and shows how the older political form of sovereignty persists even in Foucault's and Gilles Deleuze's "control society." My one reservation about A Prehistory of the Cloud is that it fails to consider, in sufficient depth, the role of surplus extraction and capital accumulation within the formations that it describes. But all in all, this is a brilliant and path-breaking book that makes an important contribution to our ongoing efforts to grasp the shape of the network society in which we live.