Impossibly detached from the transformative nature of the internet on contemporary communication and information management, cloud computing has has a global influence on the political, social and economic spheres globally. However, in the wake of its transformation of the global landscape, an environmental cost has been precipitated.
Cloud computing’s origins are inextricably linked with those of the internet itself. With the invention of the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (APRANET) in 1969, J.C.R. Licklider first materialised a system by which citizens of the world could be connected through computers (Foote, 2017). By the end of the twentieth century, and with the wide adoption of the internet, this new computing paradigm began to emerge. Salesforce, an American technology company, was an early pioneer with the launch of their Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software in 1999 (Salesforce, 2020). This cloud-accessible technology eliminated the need for downloading programs onto every computer within a business, thus reducing maintenance time and cost for large-scale organisations. Otherwise known as ‘Software as a Service’ (SaaS), this system is the foundation of direct-to-consumer cloud computing with providers including Google (Google Drive), Netflix and Microsoft Office 365 (Foote, 2017). For technology businesses ‘Infrastructure as a Service’ (IaaS) (Salesforce, 2020) is the primary purpose of cloud computing. In this model, businesses are able to rent high-end IT infrastructures and resources for the purposes of information storage and hardware provision. Through this model, organisations are able to participate in app development and preservation whilst minimising capital and ongoing expenses associated with data storage and server maintenance, outsourcing this computing to organisations including Amazon and Oracle (Dignan, 2020). Combined, these two cloud systems have underpinned significant trends in communications and information management.
As the basis of much the digital world’s infrastructure, the ‘sharing economy’ can be understood as a byproduct of the data storage capabilities of cloud computing. Through the provision of IaaS, social media has flourished to become a multi-trillion dollar industry that provides local and global visibility for individuals and organisations (John, 2016). Applications including Facebook and Twitter operate on Content Delivery Networks (CDNs), a web on data centres which make the information that populates them, available instantaneously and internationally (Winseck, 2017). The information in these centres are delivered through cloud computing, as the data that consumers access on social media is stored in these data centres as opposed to on their own devices, delivered to them on demand globally. Thus modern incarnations of the ‘Prosumer’ (Toffler, 1981) and the online communities they engage in can be attributed to the invention of the cloud. Networked activism is one such incarnation, with the global connectivity of cloud computing enabling the rapid sharing of information on social media. Civil unrest in Hong Kong was reverberated internationally through Twitter’s #FreeHK movement (Li, 2020), which enabled community organisation for its residents in their rebellion against Chinese rule, whilst additionally serving to educate and update the global community about the conflict in the region.
This affordance of scalability (Marwick and Boyd, 2011) in networked publics has repeatedly enabled the communication of emerging societal ideals. Whether it concerns gender politics and sexual misconduct (#MeToo) or racism and police brutality (#BlackLivesMatter), the apparent omnipresence of social media has permitted a rapid and global distribution of information. Thus, as these evolutions of communication are performed on platforms facilitated by cloud computing, the impact of the cloud on its societal beneficiaries is evident.
Although much of the internet’s infrastructure has seen power shift towards the European Union and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) (Winseck, 2017), much of the market for cloud computing has been maintained by the United States since its inception. The single largest cloud provider is Amazon Web Services, who maintain almost half of the share of the global marketing for IaaS, which is valued at $44.5 billion USD (Gartner, 2020). Providing data storage and computing power for Netflix, who account for a 15% of all internet traffic (Fortune, 2018), and Facebook, the world’s largest social media platform with 2.23 billion monthly active users (Lua, 2020), the cloud company’s market influence is concrete. Combined with Microsoft and Google, these American behemoths account for 67.6% of the market, rivalled only by the Chinese multinational Alibaba who maintain 7.7%. Thus the economic weight of cloud computing continues to rest firmly in the western world.
The economic and political importance of these cloud computing giants is asserted by Winseck (2017) who notes that they “constitute a sprawling, general purpose platform upon which financial markets, business, and trade, as well as diplomacy, spying, national security, and war depend”. This dependance is based on the data held by cloud providers. Harley (2005) affirms this understanding, asserting that in contemporary society the ‘tools of empire’ and ‘weapons of politics’ upon which ‘Territorial Imperialism’ is performed, are the personal data stores of cloud computing users, such as social media participants. These data stores provide powerful insights into the psychographics of populations, which can be weaponised, as Harley (2005) contends. The fear of political erosion was evidenced by the recent forced sale of the American arm of social platform TikTok. In a bid to remove the personal data of one hundred million American citizens from cloud servers accessible to the Chinese Government, the United States Government facilitated the sale of TikTok to Oracle, an American cloud computing organisation (Criddle, 2020). This sale evidenced awareness of the significant geopolitical power of cloud computing, as well as the influence of United States as a market leader in the sector and home to the personal data of the world’s most popular social networks, with the exception of WeChat (Criddle, 2020).
However, whilst cloud computing has the power to reshape the ways in which communities share information and governments retain power, this growing industry has a social and environmental cost. Notley & Reading (2015) observed the often forgotten demand for primary resources that power the devices used to access and build our information networks. Through the example of ‘Save Malaysia, Stop Lynas’, they found that our contemporary ‘cultural memory has a material basis’ (Notley & Reading, 2015, p.520) which results in the destruction of physical communities in support of digital ones. Thus as cloud computing increasingly supports the social, cultural, economic and political spheres of life, so too will the environmental cost increase, leaving some populations disproportionately disenfranchised.
In conclusion, since its inception cloud computing has fostered the growth of global digital communities. Through IaaS and SaaS, dominate western organisations have supported the growth of contemporary communication, social transformation and global business operations. This industry has ballooned to encompass the data of billions of humans, creating a complex and competitive political and economic arena. In doing so however, the demand for devices which can utilise this seemingly intangible and transformative technology have increased, contributing to further strain on our environmental resources.
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