The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media

University of Chicago Press
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When we speak of clouds these days, it is as likely that we mean data clouds or network clouds as cumulus or stratus. In their sharing of the term, both kinds of clouds reveal an essential truth: that the natural world and the technological world are not so distinct. In The Marvelous Clouds, John Durham Peters argues that though we often think of media as environments, the reverse is just as true—environments are media.

Peters defines media expansively as elements that compose the human world. Drawing from ideas implicit in media philosophy, Peters argues that media are more than carriers of messages: they are the very infrastructures combining nature and culture that allow human life to thrive. Through an encyclopedic array of examples from the oceans to the skies, The Marvelous Clouds reveals the long prehistory of so-called new media. Digital media, Peters argues, are an extension of early practices tied to the establishment of civilization such as mastering fire, building calendars, reading the stars, creating language, and establishing religions. New media do not take us into uncharted waters, but rather confront us with the deepest and oldest questions of society and ecology: how to manage the relations people have with themselves, others, and the natural world.

A wide-ranging meditation on the many means we have employed to cope with the struggles of existence—from navigation to farming, meteorology to Google—The Marvelous Clouds shows how media lie at the very heart of our interactions with the world around us. Peters’s book will not only change how we think about media but provide a new appreciation for the day-to-day foundations of life on earth that we so often take for granted.
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About the author

John Durham Peters is the A. Craig Baird Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Iowa. He is the author of Speaking into the Air and Courting the Abyss, both also published by the University of Chicago Press. He lives in Iowa City.
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Additional Information

Publisher
University of Chicago Press
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Published on
Jun 19, 2015
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Pages
416
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ISBN
9780226253978
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Language
English
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Genres
Language Arts & Disciplines / Communication Studies
Philosophy / General
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Available on Android devices
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Eligible for Family Library

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The militarized legacy of the digital cloud: how the cloud grew out of older network technologies and politics.

We may imagine the digital cloud as placeless, mute, ethereal, and unmediated. Yet the reality of the cloud is embodied in thousands of massive data centers, any one of which can use as much electricity as a midsized town. Even all these data centers are only one small part of the cloud. Behind that cloud-shaped icon on our screens is a whole universe of technologies and cultural norms, all working to keep us from noticing their existence. In this book, Tung-Hui Hu examines the gap between the real and the virtual in our understanding of the cloud.

Hu shows that the cloud grew out of such older networks as railroad tracks, sewer lines, and television circuits. He describes key moments in the prehistory of the cloud, from the game “Spacewar” as exemplar of time-sharing computers to Cold War bunkers that were later reused as data centers. Countering the popular perception of a new “cloudlike” political power that is dispersed and immaterial, Hu argues that the cloud grafts digital technologies onto older ways of exerting power over a population. But because we invest the cloud with cultural fantasies about security and participation, we fail to recognize its militarized origins and ideology. Moving between the materiality of the technology itself and its cultural rhetoric, Hu's account offers a set of new tools for rethinking the contemporary digital environment.

Courting the Abyss updates the philosophy of free expression for a world that is very different from the one in which it originated. The notion that a free society should allow Klansmen, neo-Nazis, sundry extremists, and pornographers to spread their doctrines as freely as everyone else has come increasingly under fire. At the same time, in the wake of 9/11, the Right and the Left continue to wage war over the utility of an absolute vision of free speech in a time of increased national security. Courting the Abyss revisits the tangled history of free speech, finding resolutions to these debates hidden at the very roots of the liberal tradition.

A mesmerizing account of the role of public communication in the Anglo-American world, Courting the Abyss shows that liberty's earliest advocates recognized its fraternal relationship with wickedness and evil. While we understand freedom of expression to mean "anything goes," John Durham Peters asks why its advocates so often celebrate a sojourn in hell and the overcoming of suffering. He directs us to such well-known sources as the prose and poetry of John Milton and the political and philosophical theory of John Locke, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., as well as lesser-known sources such as the theology of Paul of Tarsus. In various ways they all, he shows, envisioned an attitude of self-mastery or self-transcendence as a response to the inevitable dangers of free speech, a troubled legacy that continues to inform ruling norms about knowledge, ethical responsibility, and democracy today.

A world of gigabytes, undiminished religious passion, and relentless scientific discovery calls for a fresh account of liberty that recognizes its risk and its splendor. Instead of celebrating noxious doctrine as proof of society's robustness, Courting the Abyss invites us to rethink public communication today by looking more deeply into the unfathomable mystery of liberty and evil.
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