We've been thinking about the data cloud in the Lounge these days. "What data cloud?" you may ask, and well that you should: it's a term relatively new to English and it hasn't yet settled down to a single fixed meaning. The data cloud we've been thinking about is the Big One: the nebulous dataset consisting of all the data that is, in principle, at your fingertips when they are poised above an Internet-connected keyboard.

In particular, we've been thinking about that part of the data cloud that ordinary folks are the authors of. These days, so many entities -- roughly, those that are designated as "Web 2.0" phenomena -- invite us to upload, store, share, label, tag, and comment on our own and other folks' data.

We've been pondering the various sets of words that English now employs to talk about aspects of the data cloud: how we interact with it, how we characterize its operations, and how we consider the implications of its existence, even if we don't understand them all very well. A while back, in The New Food, we explored the way in which a number of food terms have morphed into meanings commonly associated with information technology. That's an example of how English -- like other modern languages, we suspect -- is quite economical in dealing with the data cloud. English has required relatively little new language for grappling with the new paradigm: instead, we simply put to work tried-and-true words that have proved amenable to having their meanings extended and applied to a new area of discourse. But what do these various bags of words -- of which food words are one example -- say about the data cloud and our relationship to it?

Let's start with the term "data cloud" itself. We don't know who the original coiner of this term is (we find hits online going back to about the turn of the 21st century), but we happily affix a gold star to his or her label for aptness. The data cloud does indeed have many of the features of a cloud: indistinct boundaries, the quality of being homogenous when viewed from a distance or from within, the sense that it hovers above us, and that it is constantly changing its indeterminate shape under the influence of forces much greater than an individual can command.

As real clouds exist in physical space, it seems inescapable to conceive of the data cloud as existing in space, or even of being a kind of space unto itself: it has addresses and locations; it can be both navigated and mined; we put things into it and take things out of it, though for these operations we use the mainly 20th century words upload and download. The persistent space metaphor that we use in dealing with the data cloud probably arises from many causes: our already established habit of talking about memory as if it existed in physical space; the fact that many function words in English (like prepositions) are grounded in spatial relations; and perhaps most of all, the fact that humans and their languages can't make much sense of anything that isn't grounded in time and space.

But we wonder, is there a deceptive simplicity in dealing with the data cloud as a notional space? Remember, the data cloud consists entirely of data. There's something slightly chilling in the definition of data: "a collection of facts from which conclusions may be drawn." Conclusions? What conclusions? And who's drawing them? These questions point to the dark underbelly of the data cloud and to another set of English words that have been given new life in talking about new technology. This set of words forces us to think about the data cloud as something other than a pretty, fluffy white thing that scuds across the horizon on a summer afternoon. The data cloud is home to a lot of curious things: bots, spiders, crawlers, gophers, and other critters that work tirelessly by night and day, sifting, indexing, collecting, comparing, and no doubt, drawing conclusions.

It's marvelous that various companies will give us multigigabytes of storage for our stuff free, or at only a nominal cost. But it's all information we're putting out there; whether it's our Gmail archive, our photostream on Flickr, our blog, or our financial records on our bank's bill paying facility. It's all data -- the food of the data cloud, the fodder from which conclusions can be drawn -- and in what other space would we leave valuable morsels lying about, knowing that various predatory critters were poised to feed on them?

We use familiar language in dealing with the data cloud because we need to make it familiar: we must have terms that enable us to talk about it in a way that makes sense to our time-and-space-bound brains, and we have to start from where we are. But the language that has developed about the data cloud seems to be a little compartmentalized now, and perhaps simplified in a way that allows us to think of the data cloud as something benign. We overlook the fact that we mix things in the notional space of the data cloud that we would never mix, or that we would make an effort to keep separate, in any real space. The data cloud really is something new under the sun. As we continue to internalize the implications of its existence, we wonder how our language-based metaphors about it will change.

Here are a couple of things we saw online (appropriately enough!) that got us started thinking about the data cloud. First, a diagram in Wired magazine that can be viewed interactively here:


Secondly, we saw an article in Forbes magazine. The line that caught our eye in this article was "...the development of the Nexus 7000, a network switch that's capable of routing 15 terabits of data per second -- the equivalent of moving the entire contents of Wikipedia in a hundredth of a second, or downloading every movie available on Netflix in about 40 seconds." This led us to a description of the product in question:


What we liked most about this page was watching the "video data sheet," in which a Cisco executive talks in deadpan, matter-of-fact tones about the brave new world of high-speed data transfer. It's good medicine if you're inclined to think that the data cloud just happens!

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Saturday March 1st 2008, 4:52 AM
Comment by: Dan N.
The world is evolving more and more expressively into a multidimensional need of perceptions. If you can use your time, your ability to think and to argue, and your consciousness about life as individual perception, you may see the data cloud as a natural evolution of objects that are distributed over the world nowadays. Let me have some questions:
- are there enough people who deal with the changes consciously in view of preparing us to get paired with the changes?
- which conclusions may these people drawn from the insights they get?
- "Data Cloud" is just one of the many "notions" to come. How will we act on this level?

Saturday March 1st 2008, 6:07 AM
Comment by: Paul M.
There is a fascinating insight here http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/129#
into the possibilities of the sharing of pictorial images that can be drawn together to achieve a gestalt of mind blowing proportions. It reveals some of the possibilities for our 'connected' world of perceptions.
As Dan suggests, there is a risk of overload, but I believe we will grow into the possibilities very quickly.
If you are unfamiliar with the Ted Talks, I apologise in advance for all the time that you will spend there!
Saturday March 1st 2008, 7:53 AM
Comment by: Joi K.
Dan, can you explain your first question (are there enough..." a bit more?
Saturday March 1st 2008, 8:40 AM
Comment by: Andre G.
"Techno cortex" is another synonym of "data cloud." I have also coined it at the turn of the 21st century. Here is how I have used it lately in my writing:
"When we needed to adapt to a changing environment, it is the unconscious evolution of our neo cortex that allowed us to become aware of the "objectivity" of the world, conversely, now that we need to adapt to an environment that we are transforming at an accelerated pace, it will be the conscious transformation of the Internet into a collective "techno cortex," that will potentially allow us to develop in time a pragmatic awareness of the " interconnectivity" of the same world."
To read more: http://gaudwin.spaces.live.com/?lc=1033 or Google "neo cortex." comments: gaudwin@rogers.com
NB I am French, and this has not yet been, and need to be, edited.
Saturday March 1st 2008, 9:42 AM
Comment by: Ernest K.
I second Joi's query to Dan. Please? And I hope more than "a bit" more.
Saturday March 1st 2008, 9:49 AM
Comment by: Jerome S.

I have an interest in the interchange between a growing consciousness of our interconnectedness and a type of ordinary mysticism that lives outside monasteries and hermitages. This is closely related to another question: What does it mean to be human?

Is there anyone else with this interest?

Saturday March 1st 2008, 12:01 PM
Comment by: Roger B.
Back in the 70s I was brought in by a tech company named Tektronix to produce a piece of literature about their "programmable calculator" (their term). It was just a early computer.

As I interviewed the engineers who had designed it they of course used technical terms that were not understandable to me. Every time I encountered on of those I asked them to stop and explain it. Then they discovered a "game". They would use a term that meant something vague in the early development of the computer to describe a feature that had developed later in the process. If one had grown with that development process, one understood that the obsolete term could be substituted for something more precise in the later stage of development. It was very confusing to me at first until I realized what they were doing. So I stopped them and said, "Does Tektronix still have a generous profit sharing plan?" "Of course," was the answer. So I said, "Your game of using terms with several meanings is costing the company X dollars per hour." They got my point and stopped playing their game. They were more straightforward with me from that point on, using stories and examples to explain things to me.

That myopic orientation kept Tektronix from developing its early computer in the way that IBM brought the PC to the world a few years later. The point is that insider jargon can be a very efficient way of communicating inside the group. But words familiar only to insiders are almost useless to people outside the group.

Many years ago Harvey Cox wrote about "signals (meaning jargon) vs stories". His best example was the way that Jesus Christ used stories to make his point.
Saturday March 1st 2008, 12:10 PM
Comment by: Dan N.
Thank you Joi and Ernest. Please take a look at "older" data cloud like Sustainability, Ecological Footprint, Web 2.0 or maybe Social Capital. Each theme puts the wide concern into comments, reports, suggestions ... but somehow they remain specific, and aren't used in common projects to solve the corresponding problem or to develop the interested aspect.
I personally think that we haven't taken the necessary approach for dealing with the changes. The specialists are still "single-minded" and the managers, entrepreneurs, politicians ... aren't used to position each concern in a global frame. In other words we weren't driven by human love of the universe anytime we start an activity. Therefore I just questioned whether there are enough people dealing efficiently with the changes. This attitude may give a direction to the question of Jerome.
Saturday March 1st 2008, 1:16 PM
Comment by: Bob K.
This concept stretches the brain, but there is one aspect that may have been overlooked. Clouds are hazy. Clouds limit vision. The relationship to fog is real and comes into play in the term, "the fog of war". This is the challenge of making timely and effective decisions and taking appropriate action under conditions of conflicting and insufficient data, fatigue, hunger and physical damage (or limitations) to (or of) self, immediate surroundings or resources in the chain of information, supply or command.

The purpose of information is to inform. The use information can be to amuse, arouse, educate, advise, provide a basis of choice or decision and so on. Where, when and how we get information and the reliability of the data and how we then use it has become the fun and the burden offered by 'the cloud."

Back to the food analogy, each user is like the first guest at a banquet sufficient for a Super Bowl crowd. Where do I start and how do I stop?
Saturday March 1st 2008, 1:27 PM
Comment by: Ozzie A. (New York, NY)
I have been involved in educational television since 1970. Through the years, as technology has made its way into the classroom, I have gone from producing passive television, to CD-ROMs, DVDs, a short-lived experiment with interactivity using a dedicated satellite, and now to the Internet. It has been difficult keeping up, but I've managed. Orin's excellent article and the responses have given me the language to express the future of education as I envision it.

The "data cloud" can only be applied to education (in the narrow sense of the word, as in a classroom with a teacher)as long as there are controls -checks and balances of sorts- to assure the proper quantity and quality of user input, response, support, and assessment. The ability of elementary and secondary level students to interchange ideas - not just written, but via video, audio, animation, and even live comparisons of individual ideas and findings, is no longer a futuristic notion, it is here now. What's needed is inspiration and funding for development. Although the Web 3.0 is relatively free for the end user, it costs a great deal of time and resources to ensure its proper execution. So far, I have not seen any serious major attempt at re-inventing the classroom by offering teachers and students data they can use, and the ability to expand their knowledge beyond the classroom in a very real and practical way.

Saturday March 1st 2008, 6:27 PM
Comment by: Ikars S.
Reading thru the article and the comments I have come to the conclusion that this is more like a hurricane in a teacup. Some of the comments are uninteligible and appear to be an attempt to flabbergast others with one's erudition. Depending on need even a person's first name can be data. As long as data has been available (and that, for all intents and purposes, means forever) and remains so, anyone who is capable and driven enough can find what he/she wants. I fail to see why the term, being by nature entirely nebulous, needs a finer definition or to be of special concern. As long as I can mine it for what I need it matters not that the data cloud remains unaccessible as a whole to anyone whose life span will remain inadequate to plumb it.
Saturday March 1st 2008, 10:49 PM
Comment by: Richard S.
to Dan... huh?
Sunday March 2nd 2008, 5:54 AM
Comment by: Janice S.
Great ideas; I really like this; however, what happens to my students who are at-risk youth? who don't have a computer? who are already at the bottom rung of the three r's? Who's going to help them out with a data cloud? I have this visual of a Clockwork Orange. I'm wondering which big business will donate 100 laptops to the youth I work with so I can teach them about data clouds---we are becoming a class system for heaven's sake.
Sunday March 2nd 2008, 12:25 PM
Comment by: Lawrence P. (North Billerica, MA)
reply to Jerome Schroeder -
The subject you address, while a bit off topic, interests me also. The more I read and consider, the more it seems the answers to our future peaceful survival are entwined in understanding our interconnectedness with each other and the whole of existance, rather than the dogmatic beliefs which tend to separate us.

The more information and ideas we consider with an open mind, the closer we may come to ultimate answers. This "data cloud" might be considered a seed example of an underlying "universal intelligence", a directive to a 'logical' connection to the spiritual needs of most humans, not to worship of course, but to accept as probable. There can be great comfort and inspiration in feeling kinship with everyone and everything.

In our human curiousity, we already comprise part of the overall solution. Believe in learning. Access the cloud? It cannot hurt...

Monday March 3rd 2008, 12:37 PM
Comment by: donna P.
Janice, I think you are right about the potential for technology and its benefits to become another avenue for inequity. This underscores the importance for including opportunities for students to explore, or as Lawrence says, unleash their natural curiosity with access to informational tools. Research continues to focus on the question, "Does technology enhance or speed learning?". The move toward informational technology is not like a leak in a dike that might be reparied and prevented. The flood is happening and we must determine how to live with the new landscape being created. Unfortunately, this doesn't answer your question regarding how your students will be provided with the tools they need.
Monday March 3rd 2008, 8:35 PM
Comment by: David H.
This article has given me the opportunity to give voice to a feeling that me and my grade school students are dealing with, we're overloaded. We keep getting hit with this or that mandate or some new technology that will save us. The technology is not saving us it is compounding the problem. The term data cloud sums it up for me. I would add that it is not a cloud but a storm building on the horizon, I hope we can get off before it is a data hurricane.
Thursday March 6th 2008, 2:48 AM
Comment by: Peter G.
I tend to agree with Ikars Sarma.
I first encountered "data clouds" when working at the periphery of the telecoms industry. There the concept is used to summarize a universe of interactions and relationships only a few of which may be relevant to the concept at hand: a short hand for how we emerge briefly from the mass of undifferentiated consciousness to register, process and relay information in a continuous process.
I have no doubt that our "modes of consciousness" are evolving faster than ever before in human biological history. Nor do I doubt that in only a few generations humanity's perception of itself and of its living space will have significantly changed as will its sense of what is appropriate in interacting with this space.
Until then, I'm with Janice Sapp and Donna Phillips in trying to preserve a semblance of balance, if for no other reason at least that the human experiment should have every chance to succeed.
Saturday March 8th 2008, 3:47 AM
Comment by: steve C.
Maybe the word 'cloud' is an arbitrary metaphor - a false analogy when you try to justify viruses, mining and other things that don't occur in clouds. Can you 'seed' the data cloud? Is it blown by the techo-wind?

Maybe 'sea' would apply just as well/unwell. Or 'slime'..? Or 'habitat'..? (any suggestions?)

Words get picked up partly because they sound cool (eg cyberspace)but we should remember that, like atoms, waves, particles or descriptions of God, they're just metaphors - helpful but not literal.
Tuesday March 11th 2008, 11:58 PM
Comment by: charles F.
Note that there is such a thing as "data condensate." Clouds, condensate, arbitrary associations out of which an infinity of new meanings can form like snow flakes. And snow flakes fit together in collections of irreducible representations, configured by symmetry operations in the same way we might fold a complex molecule to get a feel for the way it works.

Data clouds are neither grand, nor glorious, and possibly omminous simply because we have no possible method to deal with the consequences of reassociation. As Wilber **** put it, thought lags seriously behind analysis.

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