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Heavy Clouds: Towards a Material Analysis of Computing

Date & Time:
16:00:00 - 17:30:00,
Tuesday 20 March, 2012


As a label for the most significant infrastructural works of our time, the ‘Cloud’ is sheer marketing genius. An industrial process of massive concentration of processors, network wires, and storage media is subsumed under an ethereal image of wispy vapours. The shift to the Cloud is further wrapped in revolutionary narratives whereby data centres are poised to liberate us from the desktop computers that had themselves liberated us from an earlier version of the computing infrastructure, mainframes. Finally, the Cloud’s appeal rides on a promise of infinite (and infinitely cheap) computing capacity, the necessary condition for Big Data to fulfil its mandate of an ‘intelligent planet’.

While compelling in their own right, these narratives provide few conceptual tools with which to analyze the mechanics, significance, and consequence of this important shift. In this talk, Dr Blanchette proposes that a useful framework for analyzing the Cloud and the future evolution of the computing infrastructure proceeds, perhaps surprisingly, from the material basis of computing resources and their physical constraints.

From such a framework, a different set of potential cloud narratives emerge, that foreground rather than obscure essential infrastructural dynamics: design trade-offs, the dialectics of abstraction and implementation, the long-term persistence of infrastructures, and the politics of scarce computational resources.

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  • Name: Dr Jean-François Blanchette
  • Affiliation: Assistant Professor, Department of Information Studies, University of
    California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
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  • Bio: Jean-François Blanchette is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of Burdens of Proof: Cryptographic Culture and Evidence Law in the Age of Electronic Documents (MIT Press, 2012), and “A Material History of Bits,” JASIT 62 no. 6 (2011).