The back-end and front-end of the American Cloud

Venkatesh Rao on the dichotomy of the vast Hamiltonian ‘cathedrals’ across the US mainland and the carefully crafted Jeffersonian bazaars of the coasts.

The vast back-ends, a national infrastructure of “grain silos, power plants, mines, landfills and railroad yards” built in Hamiltons’s image of America and supported by governmental structures and legal frameworks are hidden behind their citizen front-ends exemplified by Whole Foods to preserve “a theatre of pre-industrial community life” that was Jefferson’s ideal and what, according to the writer, is America’s vision of itself.

Structurally then, the American cloud is an assemblage of interconnected Hamiltonian cathedrals, artfully concealed behind a Jeffersonian bazaar. The spatial structure of this American edifice is surprisingly simple: a bicoastal surface that is mostly human-habitable bazaar, and a heartland that is mostly highly automated infrastructure cathedrals. In this world, the bazaars are the interiors of cities, forming a user-interface layer over the complex tangle of pipes, cables, dumpsters and loading docks that engineers call the last mile — the part that actually reaches the customer. The cities themselves are cathedrals crafted for human habitation out of steel and concrete. The bazaar is merely a thin fiction lining it. Between the two worlds there is a veil of manufactured normalcy — a studiously maintained aura of the small-town Jeffersonian ideal.

To walk into Whole Foods is to recognise that the Jeffersonian bazaar exists in the interstices of the cloud rather than outside of it. Particular clouds might have insides and outsides — smartphone apps live outside, datacentres live inside; gas stations live outside, oil supertankers live inside — but the cloud as a whole has no meaningful human-inhabited outside. It subsumes bicoastal America rather than being book-ended by it.