VSJ – September 2008 – Sounding Board

Robin Jones ruminates on the power of metaphor

Sometimes we use a word happily for generations without its having a really useful definition. Take ‘information’, for example. It wasn’t until Claude Shannon described it as a reduction in uncertainty that information theory took off. On the other hand, concepts may develop almost surreptitiously without a descriptor at all. Then someone hits on a suitable handle and, if it’s really appropriate, it seems to alter our collective way of thinking all but instantaneously.

I can’t remember when I first saw the phrase ‘in the cloud’ on the printed page but I’d be surprised if it was more than six months ago (although it is true that time flies when you’re having fun). Now, you can’t read a piece on software as a service, databases or any aspect of the Internet without tripping over it at regular intervals. And, for once, it’s a justifiable cliché. It does describe powerfully the nebulous nature of data-at-a-distance. And the metaphor goes further. Just as  gardeners don’t care how real clouds generate rain, so computer users aren’t worried about how or where their applications are housed or maintained. So long as they are, of course.

At one level, there’s nothing really new, here. Virus signature updates have been ‘in the cloud’ for years; various music lockers are on offer; Google Docs and its predecessors and rivals date from around two years ago. In fact, I notice that I wrote here about how these things might be strung together in July 2007. But I didn’t use the phrase ‘in the cloud’. Now that we know it though, we can ask some new questions like, “If spam is in the cloud, why aren’t spam filters?” Of course, they wouldn’t be filters any more. They’d be more like macrophages in the body’s immune system, roaming the bloodstream looking for nasties to destroy. And if we could destroy spam in transit, it would dramatically reduce our bandwidth requirements. Which leads me to another question. Isn’t it strange that we’ve always used biological metaphors (virus, worm) to describe malware but our countermeasures don’t generally adopt biological models? Thinking of the Internet as body and data packets as blood might be a profitable paradigm.

[Something you’d like to get off your chest? Email me (Robin Jones) at eo@iap.org.uk.]

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