by Judith Williamson
This is the middle ad in a sequence of three that ran on consecutive recto pages in a recent Wired. Each follows a similar structure: a colour photo is superimposed on a montage of what seem to be tinted black and white photos of generically similar scenes, the tints matching the positions of the red, green, yellow and blue squares of the Microsoft logo shown in the bottom right hand corner. The first and last ads in the sequence are captioned "This cloud redefines winning" and "This cloud opens one stadium to 450 million fans" - referring to uses of Microsoft's cloud by the Special Olympics and Real Madrid. Further stories about specific uses of their cloud platforms can be found on Microsoft's website, which presents short videos, under the same captions, about all the companies shown in these and similar ads.
The example shown here is especially interesting because the featured company AccuWeather allows play with the very concept of the cloud. "This cloud stands up to any storm" suggests both that 'the cloud' really is a cloud, floating somewhere above us, and at the same time reinforces its key selling point, the idea of security. The naming of massive-capacity digital storage after one of the most ephemeral features of the natural world is an extraordinary phenomenon in itself. 'The cloud' suggests something ethereal, barely physical; it evokes the thought bubble, the cartoon representation of mental space, and also perhaps those clouds that support the figures of saints and gods in so many representations of spiritual existence. It is the magical space into which all our data and images can be whisked away, to reappear when summoned. In reality, 'the cloud' is a huge number of high-capacity servers in maximum security units known as server farms - a term itself quaintly suggesting some kind of organic husbandry, while in fact these are industrial complexes more akin to military installations.
The development offered by the cloud is a capacity for storage that is not limited by your own hardware, and the ability of multiple users to access the same data. The cloud is supposedly more secure than your own computer, which can crash, be stolen, etc. The weather-proof cloud advertised here is a contradiction in terms in nature, but is presented as a 'solution' for both companies and individuals in the digital realm. The name of Microsoft's cloud service platform, Azure, combines these two connotations, suggesting that the place where clouds live - the sky - is a clear, trouble-free sky. The small print in the ad describes how: "Microsoft Azure scales to enable AccuWeather to respond to 10 billion requests for crucial weather data per day. This cloud rises to the challenge when the weather is at its worst."
The large text about "any storm" functions in the ad as a caption to the images shown above it. The central colour image pictures a street in deep snow, with a few figures walking between cars blanketed and street signs covered by heavy snowfall. This image is presented on top of a great many overlapping images showing different kinds of storms and extreme weather - lightning, a tornado, palm trees swept by wind - so that the top image seems to be just one pulled from a huge bank. These partially-seen, montaged background images are not shown in balanced colour, but appear only as tinted - red, green, yellow and blue. Placed behind the key image, they suggest the wide range of potential data from which the main image emerges - in this case, the multiplicity of global weather conditions about which the 10 billion users are inquiring.
This overlay of images - with a touch of drop shadow between them, a classic screen trope mimicking a pile of physical pages - suggests something further, not merely about this company's use of the cloud but about the way we understand the cloud's own workings. We may rationally know that images are stored in the cloud not as intact pictures but as digital data. A photo only emerges as such when it is pulled out of the cloud. Yet it is hard for us to conceive this process, and almost impossible to represent it without suggesting that the cloud is a kind of image-bank, from which photos can be retrieved. The pictures of your holiday are imagined to 'be' somewhere out there in the cloud - but in fact are only really pictures at the moment you recall them. In its presentation of a central, colour-balanced photo, drawn from a bank of others with a shadier, 'dormant' quality, this ad suggests an image of what precisely cannot be imaged - the cloud itself.
Few of us outside the world of programming can really imagine, in our mind's eye, the translation of digital data into the pictorial world we are familiar with from a long history of photography. The structure of this ad, and of the others like it, gives us a feeling of something 'behind' the image - which is literally where the supporting, tinted images appear. What is most interesting of all is that the portrayal of these separated colours behind a full colour image conjures up the actual process of colour photography. Early colour photographs required the creation of three negatives, one for each primary colour, while Technicolor in the cinema involved negatives in red, green and blue. Similarly, an image viewed on a computer screen today is made up of red, green and blue light.
Whether deliberately or not, such processes are hinted at by the Microsoft ad's presentation of mono-tinted photos, in key colours, underlying its main image. As mentioned above, the sections of red, green, yellow and blue tints are positioned to match exactly the four coloured segments that make up the square of Microsoft's logo. However, this obvious rationale for the use of colour doesn't explain the wider range of connotations set in motion by the ad. In seeking to represent the way images are accessed and circulated through digital means, it draws on the suggestion of much older, and more familiar, forms of analogue production. The difficult-topicture contemporary technology of the cloud is portrayed - and, perhaps, metaphorically understood - through a subliminal sense of technologies from the past.