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A Prehistory of the CloudA Prehistory of the Cloud

Tung-Hui Hu

Narrated by Steve Toner

Available from Audible

Book published by The MIT Press

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.

Tung-Hui Hu is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Michigan and the recipient of a 2015 NEA literature fellowship.


“The realm of the cloud does not countenance loss, but when we touch it, we corrupt it. Hu's is a deeply melancholy book and for that reason, a valuable one.”

New Scientist

“But the thing about a cloud, Tung-Hui Hu reminds us in his mesmerizing new book, A Prehistory of the Cloud, is that you can only see it from a distance.... . A Prehistory of the Cloud is Hu’s imaginative attempt to bring this abstraction into clearer focus. It’s informed as much by his current jobs (English professor and poet) as his old one (network engineer), and his approach is eclectic and unpredictable, full of unexpected riffs on Victorian sewage systems, the history of television, counterculture seekers, and the chilling final scene of Francis Ford Coppola’s paranoid classic The Conversation.

New Yorker

“Witty, sharp and theoretically aware, Hu deconstructs this much-discussed but poorly understood “cultural fantasy”.”

The Guardian Endorsements

“Before we dismantle the cloud in our fight against the centralization of power, it's crucial to know its history. Thanks to Tung-Hui Hu's excellent book, A Prehistory of the Cloud, we now do.”

—Geert Lovink, media theorist

“Hu's riveting genealogy of the cloud takes us into its precursors and politics, and boldly demonstrates how fantasies of sovereignty, security, and participation are bound up in it. Much more than a data center, the cloud is a diffuse and invisible structure of power that has yielded a data-centric order. Imaginative and lucidly written, this book will be core to digital media studies.”

—Lisa Parks, Professor of Film and Media Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara

“Tung-Hui Hu’s A Prehistory of the Cloud is a powerful genealogy of the historical infrastructure underlying the image of the cloud as disembodied, virtual object—an image that has come to dominate the Internet of social networks, algorithms, and big data. If looking right into the cloud might blind us, there is much worth in understanding how this ‘amorphous form’ has come to signify the nebulous character of network societies while also materially and symbolically reinventing old modes of power. Beautifully and yet plainly written, both abstract and concrete, Hu’s A Prehistory of the Cloud is bound to be an enduring contribution to our historical and political understanding of network technologies.”

—Tiziana Terranova, author of Network Culture: Politics for the Information Age

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University Press Audiobooks