Tung-Hui Hu’s A Prehistory of the Cloud, published by MIT Pressin August 2015, is a necessary excavation of the material infrastructures that undergird the fantasies of freedom proposed by cloud connectivity. Hu charts the evolution of the user as a synthetic identity, providing useful tools for thinking through the ways in which distributed networks have announced and celebrated the supposed liberty of ubiquitous coverage while reconstituting otherness, social partitioning, and paranoia through the ambient dissemination of control. Drawing widely from artistic explorations of DIY cartographies and clandestine topographies of information exchange from Ant Farm’s Truck Stop Network in the early 1970s to the recent work of Trevor Paglen, the book talks through the ways in which hacktivist subversions of the network may not be as effective as they appear at first, and seeks to address the real impact that data sovereignty may have on the bodies of those it seeks to locate and implicate in extra-judicial techniques of power. We met in the suitably bunker-like confines of London’s Barbican Centre to discuss Hu’s ideas, his personal experience as a network engineer, and the pressing issues faced by artists seeking to explore cloud labor platforms.
JS: There’s a great moment at the beginning of the book where you describe a desire to gauge your own proximity to the cloud by looking into the end of a fiber optic cable, an action that could have had catastrophic consequences for your eyesight. It’s a fantastic image that jolted me to recognize how this is an embodied interface, characterizing the user as a potentially vulnerable node. What drew you to the cloud as an object of study, and how did you decide to begin mapping a technology that at first appears diffuse and elusive?
T-HH: I have a different answer almost every time I answer this question, and the one I’m thinking of now comes down to the data center. In the late 1990s, we were trying to find a place to collocate some servers. We were driving to a new facility on the outskirts of Washington D.C. where they had just installed the latest security equipment which involved a “man trap.” You entered a sealed room and operated the system through hand recognition, but you were literally unable to leave this chamber until you had been authenticated. There were bollards there to protect you from car bombs, and, you know, this was America before 9/11; although these structures exist in other countries, there’s an incredibly odd and paranoid wave of security thinking here where the body is literally caught between the walls and the wires of a data center. I’ve been interested in computer security for a while. I enjoyed finding bugs in security systems and publishing them, even before laws and regulations about whether or not that was okay or not had come into effect. But I remember thinking that this was just the oddest place: there was a farm with horses on the one side, and on the other, this strange security fortress.