In the beginning network architects created the cloud – an amorphous blob which sat between people and data-centres on every network diagram. But this analogy was little more than a pictogram embossed on the rather solid lid of a box marked “telecommunications” – inside this box was a rather solid, reliable and esoteric formation which belies the fluffy, nebulous cloud metaphor.

Undeterred further clouds have appeared in our virtual sky – cloud computing, and now Charlie Leadbeater’s “Cloud Culture”. It was hearing Charlie Leadbeater presenting his booklet to a British Council’s Counterpoint audience that it became apparent that what was being described was, while unsurprisingly expertly argued, somehow insufficient – the cloud metaphor was showing its age. What was being described was exciting and I have no doubt is a very real taste of what is to come – but I suspect (hope) there is so much more to it.

A cloud is amorphous, changing, sometimes supporting choirs of angels, and sometimes a portent of storms – and sometimes it’s a fog which masks what lies beneath. That’s how network engineers use it, to mask the complexity beneath, and I fully expect that cloud computing and its associated culture is, accidentally, doing the same thing.

So as the fog begins to clear, what might we expect to find?

It was explained to me as a child that we as individuals do not have knowledge but that we each have a window into a philosophical knowledge cloud – perhaps the first metaphorical cloud – that we are bathed in a collective, universal, shared knowledge. But looking back this is a rather arrogant perspective; that we mortals are bathed in the light of the luminaries, and that adding to and maintaining knowledge is the preserve of academics, those with doctor or professor prefixing their names, publishing work in books and peer reviewed journals.

If this was ever the case, it was because publishing was only available to the few – it’s an expensive and time consuming business which naturally creates an elite. So it’s clear that, if this were ever true, it arose from restrictions in our collective ability to communicate sufficiently widely, and that all of us have the capability to both bathe in and add to the body of a universal knowledge cloud if these restrictions were removed. The internet has removed those restrictions for many of us – the cloud supports our collective ability to converse with knowledge rather than simply consume – we can conduct light and shine at the same time.

The premise of a thinking cloud is a key reason why the metaphor is, for me at least, no longer quite sufficient. This amorphous entity has a consciousness – the ability to think and alter our individual perspective on the world, and add to our universal understanding. It has a conscience and emotions, and the ability to not just store knowledge but also create change – to process and act.

The cloud is increasingly looking like a collective brain – people forming nuggets of thought, the neurons, and the internet offering the ability to communicate those ideas, the synapses; together they form ideas and capabilities much larger than any individual. Cloud computing as it’s popularly presented is little more than a collective memory with the ability to rapidly communicate updates – it’s much, much more than that.

It’s a place where new ideas come into being which requires intelligence – the internet is no longer just a place to look things up – it’s a place to do things. Cloud computing takes the processing out of the data centre and isolated PC, turning it into a collective, shared cognitive experience.

Tools like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn simply allow us to test and renew those synapses – keeping the ability to think and process fresh and evolving. The 1.3m followers of Stephen Fry aren’t his friends – but they do form a variety of links to the real world. Anthropologists suggests we can’t cope with more than perhaps 150 real friends; the remainder are made up of a spectrum of loose acquaintances, general followers, and plain and simple voyeurs. But over time these links to individuals will be promoted and relegated just as the synapses in a brain form and weaken depending on how often they are used and how relevant they are. Learning how to manage our synapses will become a critical skill as we progress towards a thinking cloud.

So far technology has to a large extent pandered to our insecurities – deep down we didn’t really want to work three days a week – we wanted to make sure we were in control and in touch with everything that goes on around us. So technology hasn’t made life easier, as we said, but far more communicative, as we wanted. This pressure is rapidly pushing us towards information overload – or as Brian Condon puts it, the point of maximum confusion from which order and new ideas can be formed. Learning how to maintain the right links and being comfortable allowing them to change over time, will not only keep us sane but will allow us to see order and new possibilities in a thinking cloud.

Until now new ideas came from where people could meet – coffee shops in 18th century London and 20th century California. This associative behaviour was necessarily geographically confined. The thinking cloud removes the shackles and will unleash one of the most creative ages in our history (I hope!).

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