If ours is the Information Age, it is not the first. A “quantifying spirit” swept the educated classes of 18th century Europe, too, as they confronted the hyperabundance of data in an increasingly globalized world. 1 Explorers were returning from distant lands with new bytes of information — logs, maps, specimens — while, back home, Europeans turned natural history into a leisure pursuit. 2 Hobbyists combed the fields for flowers to press and butterflies to pin. Scientists and philosophers sought rational modes of description, classification, and analysis — in other words, systematicity.
That age belonged to Carl Linnaeus, whose methods we still use to name new species. (Swedish botanist, zoologist, physician: what box should we put him in?) Linnaean classification proved a “godsend to naturalists at sea in the quantity of their own discoveries,” 3 but that was just the start; its “rationality and practicality gave it entrée everywhere.” 4 Researchers applied its systematic logic to the study of everything from chemicals and diseases to machines and algebraic forms.
The craze reached its height, as ours does, with a most protean subject: clouds.
As the Romantic era dawned, French naturalist Jean Baptiste Lamarck and English chemist Luke Howard set out, independently, to classify clouds. 5 The endeavor drew praise from no less an authority than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who said that Howard was “the first to hold fast conceptually the airy and always changing form of clouds, to limit and fasten down the indefinite, the intangible and unattainable and give them appropriate names.” 6 Goethe’s enthusiasm was so great that he tried to commission a cloud atlas from Caspar David Friedrich, the German Romantic painter. Friedrich refused, on the grounds “that ‘to force the free and airy clouds into a rigid order and classification’ would damage their expressive potential and even ‘undermine the whole foundation of landscape painting.’” 7 Still, he must have understood the appeal. Artists had studied the skies for millennia, 8 but Friedrich and his English contemporaries, J.M.W. Turner and John Constable, were among the first painters whose meteorological vision could be trained by Howard’s vocabulary.
Today we are engaged in a similar cloud-rendering enterprise, although we look not to the skies but to the fog of data, the algorithmic atmosphere, the hazy geography of digital intelligence. This is our Cloud. 9 The National Institute of Standards and Technology defines cloud computing as “ubiquitous … on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (e.g., networks, servers, storage applications and services).” 10 But the naming conventions of our age are a fair bit looser than Linnaeus would have it. Google, ever commodious in its purview, has gathered atop its Cloud Platform a wide array of technologies and services, from big data warehousing to machine learning. Oracle’s Cloud can shape-shift to envelop matters from global logistics to human resources to national defense. The Cloud theorized by Benjamin Bratton is similarly capacious; it absorbs weird “geopolitical designs” and forms of sovereignty and governance; energy flows and rare earth minerals; cables, data centers, and supply chains; and operational tracking through gross profusions of data. 11 Whether we understand these technologies is almost beside the point. This is a Cloud — a nebulous conflation of information, capital, and geography — that enshrouds all.
Today we look not to the skies but to the fog of data, the algorithmic atmosphere, the hazy geography of digital intelligence. This is our Cloud.
Yet because of its relatively low altitude and mundane utility, many who live under its shadow have managed to catch a glimpse of its internal churnings. Insights that once seemed liked epiphanies are now widely shared: that the Internet is a place made of material things; that our Amazonian appetite for consumption depends on heavy logistical systems and exploitative labor practices; that secret algorithms shape our search results and social feeds; and that we leave digital exhausts in our wake. Like Goethe, we want to trace our Cloud, map it, classify it, tour it, understand its materialities, geographies, and logics. We want to probe it to see if we can find any humanity — in the form of labor, affect, or ethics — hidden within the mist.
And again we are searching for the right metaphors and models to guide our investigation. Our forebears imagined the universe as a “great chain of being,” a “scale of nature,” a continuous hierarchy of entities arranged in order of “perfection.” Some pictured the relations between things as a “circle” or “tree” of knowledge, while others preferred a less geometrically tidy “map,” “net” (Johann Hermann), “aggregate” (Hegel and Kant), or “machine” (Diderot). 12 Later advancements in math and physics gave rise to mental models that depicted things in the world as part of a dynamic continuum. Today, we make sense of our “topological culture” — with its locative media, volatile financial markets, real-time databases, mobile borders, and so forth — through lists, networks, clouds, fractals, flows, and assemblages. 13 But while we may appreciate these new topologies, we have not stopped trying to pin down their wings. Instead of butterfly boxes, we make animated maps, trace-routes, and circuit diagrams. “When we imagine a network these days,” Anna Munster observes, “it is hard to stave off the flood of visualizations … that populate our contemporary connectionist imaginary.” 14
We should wonder more about the “patterns of mind” tied to those representational techniques. Lists and fractals, photographs and diagrams, maps of stasis and maps of flow: each embodies a different relationship to “the real,” and each makes a different proposition about what the Cloud is or could be. Not every representation is visual, either. In an earlier article for Places, I wrote about scholars, artists, and designers who promote aesthetic engagement with infrastructure — who map, tour, hear, smell, signal, play, and even perform infrastructure. 15
A new wave of Cloud explorers is pushing the limits of the field and the work they do in it — from drone spotting to algorithm forensics.
As Cloud infrastructures have inspired new metaphors to talk about them, they’ve also inspired new forms of exploration. Rather than trees or nets, many researchers today are thinking in terms of fields. Suzanne Ewing, who convened a gathering on the role of fieldwork in architecture, contrasts the site (“physically delimited, culturally- and historically-situated”) with the field (a “cloud-like set of social, cultural, economic, and nonhierarchically networked conditions of reality”). 16 Landscape architect James Corner, of Field Operations, defines the field as an open system of relationships, conditions, and possibilities that the designer delimits, and into which he then makes interventions. 17 For their part, scientists have long upheld (and debated) a distinction between the lab and the field, between a “controlled” environment and a more “naturalistic” one.
Of course scholars have conducted site-based, ethnographic research on the Cloud’s physical and digital terrains for decades; consider, for instance, the work of Deborah Cowen, Paul Edwards, Brian Larkin, Lisa Parks, Susan Leigh Star, Nicole Starosielski, and Helga Tawil-Souri. 18 There are precedents, too, for “fieldwork” as a genre of design research and artistic performance. 19 But now a new wave of Cloud explorers is pushing the limits of the field and the work they do in it — from drone spotting to algorithm forensics to global infrastructure expeditions.
Architectural historian Jane Rendell argues that fieldwork in design is indebted to the social science of anthropology, and to the “ethnographic turn” that has reoriented so many disciplines. 20 Anthropologists in the field typically act as participant-observers who use all their senses to comprehend the environment. Ideally, they’re trained to reflect continuously on how their actions affect the “others” they engage, and, further, how their very presence constructs the field. The field isn’t a pre-existing territory that one enters; the researcher brings it into being by conceptually delimiting it, and then “working” it. 21
These methods bind today’s Cloud chasers to traditions of colonialism, and to its particular modes of looking, collecting, and record-keeping.
Yet not all of our contemporary Cloud explorers pay much attention to the “ethno,” the people, of the Cloud. Or, if they do, they regard people at an aggregate level — as crowds or corporations. These explorers draw on field-based practices in geology, archaeology, geography, botany, ornithology, and even 18th century naturalism. They travel to distant and exotic regions of global networks. They publish field guides, some complete with Linnaean classification. Their methods promise to bring the Cloud into focus by training us how to see it and situate ourselves within it, or in relation to it. Yet these methods also bind today’s Cloud chasers to traditions of colonialism, and to its particular modes of looking, collecting, and record-keeping. Many practitioners have an ironic stance toward those traditions, but can they so easily escape or subvert such persistent ideologies?
In the three years since my first crack at this topic, “Infrastructural Tourism” has proliferated. 22 Today we see artists, designers, and journalists venturing deeper into the infrastructural field, on Grand Tours of key sites in telecom history or nuclear facilities around the globe. Many of the people undertaking these projects aim to “raise awareness” about the unseen operations that shape political and economic systems. Some have loftier goals: to motivate public support for infrastructure maintenance and improvement, to push for accessible and justly distributed resources, even to teach themselves and others how to engineer their own DIY networks. 23
Yet Cloud infrastructures have inspired more radical methods — including what we might call “extreme fieldwork.” Unknown Fields Division, a “nomadic design research studio” led by Liam Young and Kate Davies at the Architectural Association in London, “ventures out on expeditions to the ends of the earth to bear witness to alternative worlds, alien landscapes, industrial ecologies and precarious wilderness.” 24 Destinations include “the iconic and the ignored, the excavated, irradiated and the pristine” — recently, the lithium fields of Bolivia and the Atacama Desert, which yield an element integral to the electronic products that facilitate our migration throughout the global Cloud. Led by “specialists from the fields of architecture, art, technology and film,” they spent 18 days touring salt flats, extraction fields, a pit mine, an astronomical observatory, geothermal landscapes, and rainforest communities. The year before that, they headed east on a container ship, chasing “the shadows of the world’s desires along supply chains and cargo routes,” and tracking the origins of that cargo in Shenzhen factories and Inner Mongolian mines. 25
These tours aim to demystify global flows and Cloud logistics. The terrain they cover is understood as both remote and proximate, hazily here and there, embedded among the “distributed landscapes and systems … that are fundamental to shaping and constructing our cultural experiences and relationships.” 26 And for £1900, plus round-trip airfare to Santiago, you can come along, assuming you don’t mind the air of gallantry and mystique. You’re promised an immersive education in the complexity of human-Cloud relations. Recognizing that “we’re all wrapped up in this massive network of industry and infrastructure,” Young says, should inspire us to tell new stories about the Cloud’s connections to our everyday lives; to design new objects or spaces that reflect our enlightened awareness; or even to engineer new global systems toward more “positive or productive” or equitable ends. 27
Their colleagues in enigmatic fieldwork include Dark Ecology, an art-and-research collaborative that organizes annual journeys along the Arctic Rim, from Kirkenes, Norway, to Murmansk, Russia, in order to face what Timothy Morton calls the “irony, ugliness, and horror” of ecology and its entanglement of all living and non-living things. In the far-northern field, tour participants study the life and land of the Pasvik Valley, including its darker aspects: pollution, poverty, and extinction. They, too, visit mines and boreholes, and experiment with various modes of aesthetic engagement: soundwalks, installations, performances, theoretical lectures, and more speculative works. 28
Geographic extremes — especially the Far North and South — are popular fields of investigation for those explorers intrigued by the Cloud’s role in clandestine and encrypted communication. 29 For The Soniferous Æther of The Land Beyond The Land Beyond (2013), Charles Stankievech resided at the Canadian Forces Station Alert, a signals intelligence intercept facility in Nunavut, where he investigated the “embedded landscapes” of electromagnetism at this “northernmost settlement on Earth.” His film installation portrays — via flashes of light and static patterns, slow pans, extreme long shots, and astrophotography — a dark, alien landscape that offers only hints of habitation: idle machinery, a constellation of oil tanks, an empty control room, the remains of a plane crash. The soundtrack, partly inspired by Glenn Gould’s The Idea of North, consists of pings, cryptic “numbers station” shortwave radio broadcasts, and electromagnetic recordings that are blended melodically. By the end of the film, they crescendo to overtake the visual scene with sound. (There’s a vibe of Cold War paranoia running through many of these projects.) While Stankievech did interact with military personnel in the field, the film he created suggests that this was primarily an anti-ethnographic affair. 30
At the other end of the globe, sound artist Andrea Polli blended geological, meteorological, and anthropological approaches to create Sonic Antarctica (2008): a radio broadcast, live performance, and audio-visual installation that incorporated “natural” and industrial field recordings, sonified weather science data (a data-cloud about the clouds), and interviews with climate scientists. 31
The overall impression is of a dark, unknowable field that resists de-clouding but is ultimately aestheticized, ‘fastened down,’ made knowable through technical mastery.
Ethnographers are ideally self-reflexive about their roles as researchers, their potential impact on the field, and their obligations to research sites and subjects. Many of today’s Cloud explorers identify as fieldworkers and think critically about their methods and modes of documentation. Young and Davies, the Unknown Fields leaders, regard themselves as “visionaries and reporters, part documentarians and science fiction soothsayers,” and they enlist tour participants in the creation of publications, films, and other art and technical projects that respond to experiences in the field. Their productions are hyper-stylized, simultaneously documenting and “branding” the project, whereas Dark Ecology’s outputs are more strictly documentary. Still, the two collectives share an aesthetic: old-school-nature-film meets apocalyptic-sci-fi meets Go-Pro-adventure-video.
Both groups cultivate an epic, enigmatic aura around their work through the use of atmospheric post-rock or noise soundtracks, close-ups of heavy machinery and scarred landscapes, and low-angle shots that aggrandize the bravery and skill of valiant fieldworkers, their faces weathered through prolonged exposure to the elements. Unknown Fields mixes in blurs and glitches and strategically washed-out or grayscaled imagery, suggesting the precarity and ruggedness of these terrains (and the lengths to which the team had to go to document them). And both groups juxtapose gothic or sublime landscapes with shots of technical instruments and interfaces, or they animate and annotate the landscape with data visualizations. The overall impression is of a dark, unknowable field that resists de-clouding but is ultimately aestheticized, “fastened down,” made knowable through technical mastery.
That narrative owes much to disciplines like anthropology, archaeology, and geology, where fieldwork serves as a “rite of passage that individuals must pass to gain admission to the professional community [and] as a cultural locus of experience that serves to forge their identity.” 32 Yet despite the contemporary fetishization of ethnography, and the consequent diffusion (and popularization) of fieldwork, the method is far from pure. It’s wrapped up in colonialist and gendered ideologies. The first geologists, for instance, identified as “men who got dirty, who courted danger, who prided themselves on their endurance in the field.” 33 Archaeologists likewise came to regard fieldwork, and particularly its signature method of excavation, as distinctions of the discipline. Fieldwork has been romanticized, heroicized, represented — both among professionals and in popular culture — as a performance of strength, endurance, and machismo. 34 Anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes writes about the “macho culture of surviving (and suffering) fieldwork as a rite of passage.” 35 Oftentimes that translates into a right of transgression. Fieldworkers are glamorized as men who explore uncharted territories, confront hostile terrains, and “stake claim” to new sites or discoveries — all framings with obvious colonialist undertones. 36
They recreate the fieldworker as hero, the one who deciphers and intellectualizes defiant landscapes with the aid of technical instruments and First World science.
None of this is news to scientists in those disciplines, who have grappled with these issues for decades (while recognizing that their work will always be political). Yet the contemporary Cloud chasers, while conscientiously self-reflexive about their identities as artist-researchers, sometimes fail to publicly address the broader politics of their performance. Surely they recognize how this talk of bravely trekking to the “ends of the earth,” of weathering precarity and irradiation, echoes colonialist narratives. And how their self-presentation recreates the fieldworker as hero, the one who deciphers and intellectualizes defiant landscapes with the aid of technical instruments and First World science. 37 Young acknowledges that he and his collaborators are “in a privileged enough position” and insists that their role is to “bring back stories” for those who can’t make the journey. 38 Yet that privilege is woven into the infrastructural systems that make private education and global tourism possible. 39 A three-week “witness” tour collapses disparate temporal phenomena — the tedium of travel on the high seas, the slow violence of environmental devastation, the epochal evolution of rare earth minerals and fossil fuels, the quickness of market transactions and lightning speed of data flows — and distills them into a three-minute video. 40 What are the politics of this experiential and epistemological acceleration?
Some explorers have pursued a more locally-responsive approach by designing field kits that script research activities like observation and sample collection. I’ve written previously about the Los Angeles Urban Rangers and their Interstate Road Trip Specialist Field Kit. 41 Artist Sarah Kanouse created a Post-Naturalist Field Kit for exploring the social ecologies of urban landscapes. Her kit includes traditional instruments, like tweezers and specimen jars, alongside DIY air-quality monitors and lead contamination tests. Each kit is localized with a field map, a brochure that surveys local history and politics, and activity cards that prompt users to consider relationships among social, economic, and ecological issues. 42 The “nature” represented here is not a pristine reserve set apart from culture, but rather a field embedded within it. 43 What tools might a Cloud explorer add to this kit? Cell antenna trackers and WiFi sniffers; maps of local ports, data centers, and fiber-optic trunk lines?
Finding our way through the Cloud requires some guidance, not only because its structures are novel, but also because the data-space isn’t always human-readable, or even empirical. As the old adage goes, infrastructure remains invisible until it breaks. The Cloud is composed of multiple levels of code, and no one person can see, let alone interpret, the full stack. 44 Some of its layers are legible to human subjects — engineers, maintenance workers, hackers, everyday consumers — and others only to surveillance cameras, drones, or other sentient objects. This is inscrutable terrain, and many researchers, artists, and designers have taken it upon themselves not only to draw us into it, but to help us find our way through it. In the past decade, we’ve seen a proliferation of field guides to fractals and flows, networked architectures and algorithms. 45
The Cloud is composed of multiple levels of code, and no one person can see, let alone interpret, the full stack. Field guides aim to help us find our way through it.
Brian Hayes’s Infrastructure: The Book of Everything for the Industrial Landscape (2005) features text-heavy chapters organized by industrial sector: mining and drilling; waterworks and sewers; farming and food distribution; oil and gas; power plants and grids; roads, railways, bridges, and tunnels; aviation; shipping; waste and recycling. In a chapter on communications infrastructure, he describes cables, towers, antennae, and network architectures, and presents dozens of photographs — individual close-ups as well as photo grids that compare various models of cell towers or radio antennae. While Hayes doesn’t emphasize the interrelation of these systems — how, for instance, computing depends on electricity and e-waste management — his book maps out various networks that, together, constitute the Cloud. A 2014 reissue included new entries such as fracking and LED lighting, as well as a new subtitle — A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape — which specifies the book’s literary tradition, even if its 10″ x 10″ dimensions and 3.5 pound heft make it rather unwieldy “in the field.”
Kate Ascher’s The Works: Anatomy of a City (2005), adopts a similar organizational strategy, but a very different aesthetic. She presents illustrated infographics at various scales — close-up sections of fire hydrants and fiber-optic cables, interior perspectives of wired homes and subway cars, aerial views of rail yards and steam pipe networks — alongside short narratives and informational sidebar texts. The illustrations enable Ascher to represent systemic functions and internal mechanisms that are difficult to photograph, but their “non-indexical” nature also suggests that this is a guide to an idealized city, a fictional place where “the works” always work as they’re supposed to.
Ed Sobey’s A Field Guide to Roadside Technology (2006) classifies objects by “habitat”: building roofs, airports, utility towers, and so forth. It echoes Ian Nairn’s critical studies of British roadside architecture — “Outrage” and “Counter-Attack Against Subtopia” — which were published as special issues of Architectural Review in the 1950s. 46 The rise of cultural geography and semiotics in the late 20th century spurred more guides promoting landscape “literacy,” including Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City (1960), George Nelson’s How to See: A Guide to Reading Our Man-Made Environment (1977), Grady Clay’s Close-Up: How to Read the American City (1980), and even David Macaulay’s popular illustrated books. 47 Throughout these decades, new transportation, communication, and economic infrastructures coalesced to generate a new topology: sprawl, which seemed to necessitate its own guide. Dolores Hayden’s A Field Guide to Sprawl (2004) uses aerial photography to illustrate suburban land-use patterns, from “big box” stores and “strips” to “alligators” and “starter castles,” a vocabulary that mixes quotidian terms with absurd real-estate jargon.
Let’s consider why the neat-and-tidy field guide format, with its regimented classification codes and identification markers, might appeal to explorers of a nebulous terrain.
Most of these titles preceded the days when “the Cloud” was a household term, but as the fogs rolled in, so did a front of new guides — particularly in the past four years. Before we get to new works, though, let’s step back to consider why the neat-and-tidy field guide format, with its regimented classification codes and identification markers, might appeal to explorers of a nebulous terrain. If we look to the history of the field guide, not just as a book genre but as an epistemology, we can better understand its contemporary resonance and consider its future possibilities.
As early as the 18th century, French botanists were using illustrated books to identify flora in the field. Sara Scharf traces the evolution of these guides by looking at the intersection of advances in science and in book publishing. 48 Throughout this period, scientists in many fields were developing standardized technical vocabularies and techniques for observing specimens. Just as important, they adopted publishing conventions: regularized layouts, point-form text (rather than expository sentences), and consistent forms of captioning and describing images. Botanists like Lamarck (the early cloud explorer) pioneered identification keys, which allowed for the examination of specimens through a sequenced order of variables: the color of flowers, the shape and size of leaves and their arrangement around the stem, etc. 49 In turn, these proto-flowcharts required typographic engineering. Publishers also invented bibliographic navigational cues, like indices and cross-references, as well as more reliable, less expensive techniques of printing illustrations. Those features were critical for the efficient use of reference books like field guides.
While significantly more airy and unpredictable than flowers and shrubs, birds were another subject of early field guides. Ornithologists had a trick for turning birds into docile subjects for observation, classification, and illustration: they shot them dead. Following colonialist tides to exotic lands in search of rare species, they traded birds (and bird parts) for their cabinets. The bigger the collection, the greater the potential for identification, comparison, and taxonomy. This practice resulted in findings that were sometimes comically inaccurate. For Ornithologiae hoc est de Avibus historiae libri (1599-1603), Ulisse Aldrovandi commissioned a “beautiful but incorrect” watercolor of a toucan based on an illustration from Conrad Gesner, which was itself a collage derived from a real toucan bill and a verbal description in André Thevet’s Singularitez de la France Antarctique (1557), which emphasized the bird’s “quality as merchandise.”50
Ornithologists had a trick for turning birds into docile subjects for observation: they shot them dead.
Thomas Nuttall’s Manual of the Ornithology of the United States and of Canada (1832-34), which proudly recounts the shooting of particular specimens, is regarded as the first English-language field guide. At roughly 800 pages, it was sufficiently compact — compared to Alexander Wilson’s lavishly illustrated nine-volume set (1808-14) and Audubon’s opulent table-sized folios (1827-38) — to take into the field. Later that century, Elliott Coues’s Key to North American Birds (1872-1903) followed botanists’ example in using a dichotomous identification key, a rubric that alienated amateurs by requiring that birds stay still long enough for observers to work their way through the key’s sequenced queries. 51 Despite his orientation toward the field, Coues “remained firm in his belief that the path to ornithological wisdom issued from the muzzle of a shotgun.” 52
Florence Merriam Bailey disagreed: “The fact of the matter is, you can identify perhaps ninety percent of the birds you see, with an opera-glass and patience.” (She did allow that for “small vireos and flycatchers,” you’d be better off with a gun.) 53 Her slim, 7.5″ x 4″ Birds through an Opera Glass (1899) — with its conversational prose, second-person narration, anthropomorphized avian characters, full-body wood engravings, and phonetic spellings and musical notation that evoked birdsong — was among the first widely popular field guides. Birds of Village and Field: A Bird Book for Beginners (1898) added a helpful Field Color Key, which adopted a more telegraphic style, with bulleted text identifying the key features of each species, alongside engravings that showed head plumage.
While some of her guides became less personal and more clinical over the years, Merriam was one of several female birders and field-guide authors who aligned their commitment to conservation with their commitment to women’s reform. 54 Neltje Blanchan’s Bird Neighbors (1897) and Birds Every Child Should Know (1917) and Mabel Osgood Wright’s Birdcraft (1895) and Citizen Bird (1897) are examples of this movement. Their accessible guides made no pretense of exhaustiveness — focusing on species one might find in the backyard or park — and paid little attention to taxonomy. Through their colorful portrayal of birds as spirited, even moral, characters, these authors recast birds as valuable “citizens” and “neighbors” in a social ecology that exceeded the human, and they drew more people to amateur birding and environmental causes. Without ignoring the problems of colonialism and anthropomorphism, we can acknowledge that these women sought to make “the field” — a terrain often rendered exclusive and hostile by professional fieldworkers — more widely accessible.
Chapman’s seemingly unbiased approach separated birds from the cultural, legal, and environmental issues affecting them.
Because illustration was difficult and expensive, authors often relied on verbal description, or what the Greeks called ekphrasis. Still, many books incorporated wood engravings or color photoreproductions of fine-art paintings like Audubon’s (which had to be printed separately and inserted by hand). Color printing was an imperfect process, and authors complained about the poor quality of the halftones. Rather than attempting to photograph live birds in the field, Blanchan, in Bird Neighbors, and James B. Grant, in Our Common Birds and How to Know Them (1891), included photos of stuffed and mounted specimens. Chester Reed’s inexpensive, pocket-sized guides took advantage of new four-color process printing to reproduce his oil paintings, and the books sold remarkably well in the first three decades of the 20th century.
Frank Chapman saw an entirely different use for Reed’s illustrations, and his Color Key to North American Birds (1903) marked a revolution in field-guide organization. It not only grouped similar species, but it used text and image parsimoniously, relaying only the details most pertinent to identifying the species. Its concise, factual, diagrammatic style set a precedent for guides that followed. 55 Yet, as Spencer Schaffner argues, Chapman’s seemingly unbiased approach minimized birding’s ties to conservation, separating birds “from the cultural, legal, and environmental issues affecting [them].” 56
The representation of birdsong posed a similar challenge. Early authors wrote out calls phonetically or used musical notation. F. Schuyler Mathews’s Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music (1904) ambitiously provided a little music-theory primer before transcribing the calls into complex scores. By the late 1920s, ornithologists were working with record and radio companies to capture birdsong in the field and publish records, box sets, and “sound books.” Yet even these new forms ended up separating birds from their acoustic and environmental contexts. As Joeri Bruyninckx explains, technicians began “cleaning up” their recordings, isolating the birdsong “signal” from ecological background “noise.” With the aid of equipment like parabolic microphones and techniques like spectrographic visualization, they brought laboratory controls into the field, ultimately leading to a “sterilization of field sound.” 57
Isolating the birdsong ‘signal’ from ecological background ‘noise’ led to a sterilization of field sound.
The birdsong libraries established between the 1920s and 1950s — including the Cornell Library of Natural Sounds, the world’s largest collection; the Tierstimmenarchiv in Berlin; and the British Library of Wildlife Sounds — made it possible to attend to sonic differences. Not only did amateur birders purchase these recordings on albums to listen to at home, but they also helped later to build the archival collections. The rise of tape recorders and other consumer sound equipment enabled birders to make their own field recordings and contribute them to the larger scientific effort. Cornell and the British Library traded these recordings as data, as commodities, and as trophies. The recordings “served as currency to invest in a moral culture of mutual obligation and responsibility,” and they validated amateur birders’ contributions to the fields of ornithology and wildlife conservation. 58
As recreational birdwatching gained popularity, Roger Tory Peterson published A Field Guide to the Birds (1934), which became the new standard reference text. The Peterson Identification System collapsed bird illustrations and their “legends,” presenting color schematic diagrams with “field marks,” or small lines, that highlighted the species’ most salient features. 59 Birders equipped with newly affordable binoculars were thus prepared to quickly identify a bird in the field by spotting its signature parts, then ticking it off the “Life List” at the back of the book. Birding became “increasingly visual as a past-time”; identification was about trained sight. 60
As Virginia Marie Peterson explained in the introduction to one of her husband’s guides:
A drawing can do much more than a photograph to emphasize field marks. A photograph is a record of a fleeting instant; a drawing is a composite of the artist’s experience. The artist can edit out, show field marks to best advantage, and delete unnecessary clutter. He can choose position and stress basic color and pattern unmodified by transitory light and shade. … The artist has more options and far more control. … Whereas a photograph can have a living immediacy a good drawing is really more instructive. 61
We might say that Peterson’s drawings are idealized representations of the bird’s “character,” or essence. He trained the birder’s eye by juxtaposing images of several species, all rendered in a similar size and orientation, thus highlighting their formal and chromatic similarities and differences. Yet as John Law and Michael Lynch point out, this standardization and tight focus – which present the bird as a decontextualized specimen – suggest that the birds’ posture, orientation, naturalistic surroundings, and other unmarked variables are insignificant. The diagrams determine which differences make a difference. 62
Peterson’s aesthetic reigned even as new technologies transformed publishing. It was ever easier to print photographic representations of wildlife (and, indeed, some newer titles opted for photographic “realism”), but most mid-century field guides stuck with drawings and paintings. As Jackson Pope explains, “photography ultimately presented the viewer with far too much detail” — and, I’d add, too much confusing contextual variation — “to be useful within the format of a field guide.” 63 One must learn to read the field guide “against the messiness of reality,” naturalist Helen Macdonald advises; the guide itself can’t be “messy,” too. 64
Field guides atomize a specimen into recognizable parts, turn the identification into a checkmark, and bracket out the larger ecology within which the encounter takes place.
To cultivate that literacy, field guides since Peterson have promoted “prescribed modes of looking” that atomize a specimen into recognizable parts, turn the identification into a checkmark on a list, and bracket out the larger ecology within which the encounter has taken place. 65 Schaffner criticizes the “binocular vision” of most field guides: their tendency to “sanitize the representations of birds,” to focus on the individual specimen, rather than its relationship to other creatures or to us. They do little to help readers understand how the bird and its ecosystem are influenced by our very interest and presence. 66 Yet Dunlap argues that more recent titles, inspired largely by the environmental movement born in the 1960s, have done a better job of connecting birds to their ecologies.
Even today, amidst the rise of apps loaded with maps, videos, audio files, and contextual links, the field guide is necessarily a reductive document. If any guide were to attempt to render animals in all their physiological and temperamental complexity, to situate them within their messy ecological contexts, to historicize our relationship to them, and so forth, it would be so large that we’d never be able to use it in the field. Perhaps we should embrace the obvious limitations of those pocket-sized pages and palm-sized interfaces, as they invite us to see the bird that exceeds its schematic diagram, the dynamic world beyond the frame. Ideally, the guide’s deficiencies remind us that “the question what am I looking at?” — or listening to — “has political and environmental consequences.” 67
But not everyone is attuned to that world outside the frame. Birding’s long entanglement with colonialist attitudes manifests today in the form of competitive, acquisitive looking. 68 One particular species of birder, the twitcher, is defined by an “extreme” approach to fieldwork. The twitcher seeks to accumulate the longest list, aggressively chasing the most elusive species to remote locations around the world. It’s “a spontaneous form of commodified leisure” that helps to sustain international ecotourism. Although twitchers might identify with concerns for habitat and species preservation, they end up profligately devouring “products and natural resources to consume (through identification) ‘new’ species of birds.” 69 The Life List itself is reified in competitive events like the World Series of Birding. Viewed in a certain light, such events are not far removed from historical enterprises that extracted life forms and natural resources from local ecosystems and resituated them within European taxonomies, making them vulnerable to exploitation. Much like that toucan who lost its beak for the sake of Aldrovandi’s watercolor, or the rare earth minerals transported from Mongolian mines to your nearest Apple Store.
So let us turn, finally, from the field to the Cloud. How do our attempts to map and classify its nodes and networks fit into these ecological, intellectual, and political legacies? How does the field guide as a genre — and as a pedagogical and epistemological form — “fasten down” this shape-shifting global phenomenon? How does the guide situate its readers within the mist and define their relationship to it?
The Cloud is habitat for new animate forms — including the drones that buzz above our heads. “Our ancestors could spot natural predators from [afar] by their silhouettes,” Ruben Pater notes. Shouldn’t we be equally aware of the present-day predators of the Dark Cloud? His poster Drone Survival Guide: Twenty-First-Century Birdwatching (2013) displays the silhouettes of 27 drones used for surveillance and attack (although he acknowledges that drones can also be deployed for rescue operations and scientific research). The reverse side — offered in various multilingual editions, including English/Pashto — provides an introductory text and tips for evading and hacking drones. 70 Even the poster itself is an instrument of camouflage; it is printed on Chromolux ALU-E mirrored paper, so that when spread open it becomes a defensive shield to reflect sunlight into any camera-equipped aircraft that might be flying overhead.
Superflux Lab’s Drone Aviary published a “magazine” in the form of a lithographic poster (2015) that features, on one side, an illustration of speculative aerial cartographies: “the vertical geographies and digital infrastructures” (like “geofences” and charging stations) “that cities will need in order to accommodate civilian drones.” On the reverse is a visual catalog of civilian drones with an editorial and short fictions: a guide to the avifauna of a still-cloudy future. 71 The format only hints at future possibilities for the magazine, which principals Jon Ardern and Anab Jain envision as a means to experiment with “media artifacts which cohabit our physical spaces.” Both their poster and Pater’s are foldable for use “in the field,” but can also be purchased un-creased, suitable for framing. They are not simply guides to collectible species, but collectible items themselves.
Emily Horne’s and Tim Maly’s The Inspection House: An Impertinent Field Guide to Modern Surveillance (2014) subverts most field guide conventions. The book includes no identification keys, drawings, paintings, or photos of surveillance apparatae or architectures. “A visual inspection is hardly the point,” because theirs is “a field guide to a conceptual terrain.” Much like those earlier guides that relied on verbal descriptions of sites and specimens, the authors describe the panopticon as manifested in various physical and technical infrastructures: correctional facilities, container ports, terrorist holding cells, Occupy camps, and even smartphones. 72 Similarly free of images, Geoff Manaugh’s A Burglar’s Guide to the City (2016) narrates the means by which burglars find openings of possibility in dusky alleys and interstices. “Lines of sight, potential hiding places, how shadows were cast at different times of day”: these are among the cloudy visuals, the purposeful mis-sightings, that constitute the burglar’s expanded urban field of opportunity. 73
Other field guides presume that we have a clear line of sight to the Cloud’s markings. Tim Hwang’s and Craig Cannon’s The Container Guide (2015) offers entry into the global flows of container shipping by helping readers decipher markings on its floating fleet. The guide is organized by geographic region, then alphabetically by corporation. Users first have to locate themselves within the field, at a container port or another site along a shipping route. They then match what they see at dock to what they see in the guide. Each entry includes a color image of the company logo, followed by a brief corporate history, details about the fleet’s capacity, and information about its place within the global shipping network. The book also includes three short essays — on the cultural politics of containerization, the history of refrigerated shipping, and domestic spin-offs such as the tiny house movement — and a glossary of industry terms.
Not every guide assumes a global itinerary. Ingrid Burrington’s self-published Networks of New York (2014-15) surveys the various mechanisms through which the Cloud subtly announces its presence in the quotidian fields of the city. Through hand-drawn illustrations — reminiscent of Peterson, perhaps — and short texts, Burrington introduces us to sidewalk markings for underground cable; various species of manhole covers; “suspended” infrastructures such as cell towers, antennas, and signal controllers; cameras; and telecom buildings. Her conversational, at times irreverent, texts describe the specimen or site and discuss its “habitat” (usually on a pole or embedded in the street or sidewalk) and its role within a larger networked “ecosystem.” In some cases, we also learn a bit about the object’s corporate or bureaucratic history — at least what Burrington was able to recover from institutions typically shrouded in secrecy. She reports that CrimeEye cameras, for instance, “appear to belong to the Department of Homeland Security, and are manufactured by a company named Total Recall Corporation. (Not even joking.)” Here, as with Hwang’s and Cannon’s guide, people are present primarily as corporations or agencies. Interspersed throughout, we find short inserts with helpful definitions and technical background about types of cable, “dark fiber,” fiber’s relationship to high-frequency trading, New York City’s Domain Awareness counterterrorism system, and so forth. As a testament to its popularity and utility (and a reminder of the continued visibility of female writers in the field-guide business), Burrington’s book will be reissued by Melville House later this month. 74
The presumption that infrastructures are ‘hidden’ or ‘magic,’ and thus require demystification through a field trip or field guide, signals great privilege.
As political geographer Louise Amoore notes, such attempts to “wrest the Cloud … into intelligible form” commonly involve discerning where the data live and where the Cloud materializes, in data centers, server farms, fiber-optic cables, and even local tax structures and environmental resources. 75 Identifying these material architectures has concrete implications for security, intelligence, political sovereignty, energy use, and public access to resources. 76 Yet Amoore raises an important concern, that “this desire to open the black box of infrastructure, to expand the visual vocabulary” plays into the Dark Cloud’s own paradigms of surveillance. What do we achieve by watching the watchers?
When I shared my research on Cloud guides with several groups in Europe this past spring, some were curious about what they regarded as a specifically “Anglo” romanticization of cables and tubes. They argued that, in some nations, infrastructure is regularly part of public referenda, so there’s no need to “de-mystify” it. Similarly, in the developing world, where infrastructure is often buggy and people are not just its beneficiaries, but also its maintainers and last-mile service providers, these systems are part of everyday life. All over the world, there are cable-layers and data-center operators, cell-phone salesmen and e-waste handlers who have long possessed trade-specific knowledge about the Cloud’s presence and operations — knowledge that we’ve only recently come to valorize. 77 The presumption that infrastructures are “hidden” or “magic,” and thus require demystification through a field trip or field guide, signals great privilege.
That privilege — to see and unsee — has an interesting history. Maria Kaika and Erik Swyngedouw observe that when Western cities modernized in the 19th century, their new infrastructures — water towers, sewage systems, and dams — “were celebrated as glorious icons, carefully designed, ornamented, and prominently located in the city, celebrating the modern promise of progress.” Urban leaders made a spectacle of the alchemical power to convert a natural resource (H2O) into a commodity (potable water); the visible pipes and pumping stations emblematized the processes of chemical and social transformation. Likewise, grand, graceful radio towers transformed electromagnetic waves into floating voices and ambient music. This fetishization of the network’s physical architecture obfuscated the labor and conditions of production that made it work. When the myths of technological progress ultimately proved hollow, however, those urban networks became sad “witnesses of disillusionment” and were banished underground, allowing architects and planners to remake the above-ground city according to the new clean, pure, functional aesthetic of high modernity. Hidden systems now brought resources directly into private spaces. Thus, infrastructural processes — the delivery of water, electricity, information — were made mystical all over again, “entering the domestic sphere, coming from nowhere in particular and from everywhere.” 78
We seem to want to know the Cloud both as meteorologists and as mystics.
Today, driven by a deep-seated quest for encyclopedic knowledge, we seek once again to “make visible the invisible,” to open the “black box,” while also, paradoxically, aestheticizing the wires and algorithms themselves. We have accelerated the cycles of making-visible and making-invisible that are so entangled with Western urban planning and its ideologies. How do we reconcile our competing aspirations for ordered knowledge about how the world works with our desire to believe in its magic? We seem to want to know the Cloud both as meteorologists and as mystics.
And maybe these attempts to “wrest the Cloud” too often resort to artificial methods. Is pinpointing “where the data live” akin to shooting the bird, rendering it conveniently compliant, in lieu of a more contextual examination? Is Amoore correct, that the Cloud explorers who seek its manifestations in particular sites and screens fundamentally “misunderstand” the Cloud’s calculative forms, and the way it alters “the character of what or who can be sensed or perceived”? Recent guides to the Cloud-on-Earth seek to render coherent and intelligible an apparatus that’s built on “partial and indeterminate lines of sight” and patterns of organization. Perhaps we should think about the Cloud instead as “a bundle of techniques acting upon the threshold(s) of perceptibility,” resistant to field kits and guidebooks. 79
Another species of guide focuses less on the Cloud’s precise geographies and architectures, and more on its hazy atmospheres, its computational “guts” and machine logics. Such guides tend to embrace the partiality and indeterminacy of what they can reveal. Architecture of Radio (2015) is an iPad app that uses the tablet’s GPS coordinates to map the location of proximate cell towers, WiFi routers, and satellites, drawn from open data sets. Billed as a “field guide to the hidden world of digital networks,” it can frustrate users who expect real-time, hyperlocal realism, when in fact the app is more accurately seen as a guide to the partiality of its, and our, understanding of the electromagnetic spectrum. It gives users the impression of floating within a field of waves and cells, which are sonified as pulses and crackles and swells of static, suggesting that the Cloud has a sonic signature much less knowable than its avian inhabitants.
Amy Balkin’s The Atmosphere: A Guide (2013) aims to chart “how science, social attitudes, economics, and politics intersect in the atmosphere” at various elevations: in the exosphere, thermosphere, mesosphere, stratosphere, troposphere, and at sea level. 80 We can find various instantiations of the Cloud here: “ship tracks,” or the cloudy trains of ships circumnavigating the earth, at sea level; microwave communication systems in the troposphere; satellites in the outer layers. Balkin reminds us that there are multiple Clouds, both capital-C and lowercase, inhabited by divergent interest groups. Humans are written into this guide through their attempts to develop means of commanding or comprehending these aerial fields. Balkin presents atmospheres as biochemical and geopolitical, as fields of obfuscation and communication, as global commons and militarized space. As conceived by many recent theorists, the Cloud straddles all of these fields and materialities and ideologies, and the large, poster-sized scale and ontological complexity of Balkin’s guide again remind us of the thresholds of our own ability to perceive and understand that expansive space.
Others guides have taken up Amoore’s suggestion to focus on the calculative Cloud, not as a place but as an analytic. Anne Helmond, along with colleagues in the Digital Methods Initiative at the University of Amsterdam, created The Tracker Guide to the Cloud (2012), which identifies “traces and fingerprints” of online trackers: species like cookies, bugs, widgets, and analytic services that allow for the (usually surreptitious) collection of user data. 81 The booklet, whose microbiological aesthetic portrays tracker identification as a forensic operation, is intended to help readers better understand “what content is being ‘pulled in’ from the cloud, and which user data is being collected” when we enter the field — that is, when we open a website. By “animating” algorithms as biological microorganisms, in much the same way that early bird-guide authors anthropomorphized their avian “neighbors,” the authors highlight their specimens’ protean, parasitic quality and suggest that we need special optical tools and techniques to study them. One of the guide’s techniques is a variation on Peterson’s field mark system, used here to indicate where we might look on a website to find traces of trackers.
Other guide-makers have sought to teach us how to see, rather than what to see. Sara M. Watson’s “Living with Data” series (2014) for Al Jazeera America helps readers identify the species of “advertising technology” they might encounter on their computers or phones, or in the physical world. Although presented as a field guide, it breaks convention by resisting the encyclopedic format. Similar to Horne and Maly, Watson justifies the lack of illustrations by arguing that “in the field of data and algorithms, we’re starting with limited to low visibility.” Before we can look at specimens, she writes, we need to figure out “where to start looking.” Algorithms have no predictable beak shapes or plumage patterns. Still, as the series progressed, Watson started collecting specimens submitted by readers, including “screen captures of weird ads or algorithmic flukes” and stories of uncanny online experiences. She discussed targeted advertisements, tracker-trackers, and ad monitors; as well as “field technique” tips, including strategies for confusing the algorithm and methods of “database intervention.” 82
Other researchers seek to intervene in the conventions of natural history itself. “If the Anthropocene defines a new ‘geological’ age,” Orit Halpern proclaims, “then we need a new ‘natural’ history! A new taxonomy for life, techne, and earth!” 83 In a June 2016 workshop on “Reading Algorithms,” participants experimented with systems and schema “to identify, classify, and intervene in (perhaps even re-imagine) that most distinct phylum of agents.” Workshop groups chose particular algorithms — those used in Target’s marketing analytics, Google’s page-rank, the Black-Sholes financial option model, and various sorting or machine-learning operations— and described them according to field-guide conventions. They were asked to use a descriptive matrix which included variables such as physiology, habitat, eating habits, excretion habits, vocalization, and reproductive behavior — pushing Merriam’s anthropomorphism to the extreme. 84 The exercise elicited some resistance, as participants balked at the “extreme” speculation required to imagine page-rank poop. Yet that absurdity was sort of the point. The disconnect between organisms-in-the-world and the schema we devise to capture their “character” or “essence” reveals the plain truth that all taxonomies leak.
Clouds and birds and algorithms: all of them “airy and always changing” and hard to “fasten down,” as Goethe put it. And none strangers to the sublime: seemingly immeasurable in number and variety; simultaneously noble, splendid, and terrifying. The Romantics painted the cirrus and cumulus, the hawk and bird of paradise, hovering above sublime landscapes. Now we behold a Cloud that encompasses new terrifyingly majestic terrains: salt flats, open seas, glaciers, pit mines, microscopic architectures that permit countless calculations at imperceptible speeds, troves of magic machines. We don’t quite know where, or how, to look at it all (or listen to it, or inhabit it, or move around in it). So we’ve commissioned guides to train our perception. Yet what those guides — in printed, programmed, and peopled form — ultimately demonstrate is their own necessary partiality. In their quest for clarity, for systematicity, they point us to the very things that fall through the cracks or fail to conform.
Our Cloud chasers might consider whether its last wildernesses would be better off unsurveyed and unclassified.
Perhaps we should celebrate those aberrations, for they reveal the potential wisdom of cloudy vision. Particularly when we wish to observe the Cloud, which itself dreams of a terrifyingly surveillant omniscience, we should appreciate the prudence and power of fog and obfuscation — of seeing obliquely, sensing beyond the limits of sight, even remaining unseen. Just as archivists now recognize the rights of indigenous and vulnerable peoples to determine their own self-representation and documentation, our Cloud chasers might consider whether its “last wildernesses,” its alien landscapes and life forms, its fragile populations, would be better off unsurveyed and unclassified. Is it right to comprehend the larger, cloudy systems that subsume those “minor” organisms by scouting and sorting them, collecting them as experiences and specimens, using the tools of our colonialist predecessors or contemporary data brokers? We have to reflect on the ideologies behind our methods. After all, our expeditions, maps, and databases are part of the Cloud’s logic; must they also reflect its prevailing politics? As conscientious ethnographers, we need to recognize the shadows cast by our presence as explorers in the field.