spaceflight, technology, anime, politics, and whatever else I feel like writing about


As much as the people selling big "cloud" technologies would like to tell you otherwise, physical place still matters very much. This is especially true when it comes to themselves. As much as they would like to sell you otherwise, you can't understand their software without understanding the people who build it, and you can't understand the people without understanding the places they live and work. What follows is an insider account of the depths of the world of Big Cloud. I was not aware of it myself until today's snowfall forced a change of perspective.

I live in the Puget Sound area of the US state of Washington. This is known as "near Seattle" to the geographically challenged. My rainy little home sits in a flooded set of fjords between two snow-capped mountain ranges, with the open ocean to the north and west. The mountains block all physical access to the wider world except via aircraft, boat, train, and a few highways through the passes, and those passes become impassable with snow for a while every year. Even the trains stop running when the mountains get too snowy. Much of rural Washington is public land, much of the rest is agricultural, and what remains is Indian reservations and other areas of poverty and isolation. Many of them barely have broadband worth the name in their towns, which impacts the economic prospects of those towns about how you might expect. West of the Olympic Mountain peaks is a rainforest that died economically when environmentalism stopped major logging, and east of the Cascades is the dryness that persists until you reach Minnesota, with accordingly frigid winters. Meanwhile down in the lowlands between the mountains, things stay warm enough that people grow decorative palm trees outdoors, and seemingly everyone has a job or the opportunity for one. With the mountains and a strong US military presence, the problems of the outside world might as well not exist outside of a few narrow cases like a collapse in foreign trade, or one of the largest regional employers (Boeing) suffering repeated major failures and going months without selling a single product, or even just a few years of federal politicians refusing to kowtow to the lowlanders' cultural fatwas. Even within the region, the only sorts of problems that could reach all the way in to downtown Seattle were a major snowstorm, a pandemic, lack of law enforcement, or riots. All of those happened in the space between 2015 and 2020. This makes the lowlander elites extremely angry and frightened. Either way, they view them as aberrations, that the Natural Order of Things is how things were right up until a celebrity steak salesman and his wife took a ride down an escalator a continent away. They view their abilities and moral character as the cause of their success, instead of their location, their inheritance from past generations, and their willingness to abuse said inheritance to make a quick buck. They project that outward and consider that the people in rural areas must be less wealthy because they are less competent and less moral. Read: "flyover country."

This is a difficult thing for people to ingest and understand all at once. Happily, there is an almost perfect analogy in the form of Chrono Trigger, a 1995 Super Nintendo RPG by Squaresoft. Please stop reading here if you don't want the game spoiled. If you're considering playing the game and you haven't yet, please stop and do so now before reading further. It's one of the all time greats. Also note that the Steam version is buggy so please consider an alternate port, or if you have some way to play SNES games (wink, wink) that's a fine option as well.

=> Chrono Trigger on Wikipedia

Still reading? OK, here come the spoilers.

About 2/3 of the way through the game, the heroes are flung back in time to the cruel depths of the Ice Age, with nothing but ice, snow, rock, and sea as far as anyone can go... with one exception. The Floating Kingdom of Zeal exists bathed in eternal sunlight above the raging storm clouds of the lower world. It is a series of chunks of land nearly the size of continents, floating in the air by pure, excessive use of magical power. The inhabitants spend their days researching ever deeper abstractions of magic, scheming and plotting against one another, building aircraft, or in complete idleness.

=> The background music for this level of the game is incredible, and helps capture the feeling I'm trying to impart.

As the heroes explore Zeal, they begin to understand the darker side of this apparent utopia. The "Earthbound Ones" without magic were all exiled to the frozen hell of the surface world, leaving Zeal as the sole posession of the "Enlightened Ones" who do use magic. (As this is a Super Nintendo game the two groups are helpfully color coded with the Enlightened Ones all having bright purple hair. See if you can find where else in the game that sharp demarcation of hair color exists...) Magic has done many wonderful things for the people of Zeal, but at a cost.


It is revealed that humans' ability to use magic, in Chrono Trigger, is humans subconsciously being contacted by Lavos, the Lovecraftian space beast eating the planet from the inside out, while in their mothers' wombs. Magic itself is drawing on Lavos's energy instead of normal energy sources like the sun, the planet, or chemical reactions. Those born in the distant past before Lavos's arrival do not have magic, and nor do those born in the far future after he has emerged from his slumber and broke out to the surface, destroying civilization and the climate in a single day.

Zeal is built on this power, suffused in this power, and except for those at the very top, they have no understanding of the destructive nature of this power. They live their lives in ease and luxury directly fueled by the suffering of others. For all that, for all their vaunted research? Almost none of it lasted. What fragments survived from the Ice Age to the present day were due to time travel, aside from the various monsters spawned by the interaction of Lavos's magical energy with the world and Zeal's experiments. The cultural division vanished once Zeal's power fell too, as nobody felt particularly superior anymore. At all times after this in the game's timeline, the hair color coding goes away as a predictor of factional alignment, and we see characters without purple hair being able to use magic, which indicates the blending was genetic as well as cultural.

Bringing it back to Big Cloud, imagine that magic is data. They gain power by harvesting data from everyone else, hoarding all the world's data, and damn the societal consequences for everyone outside their little bubble. If data-mining the population at large makes them easier to enslave, so much the better! No wonder Google got in trouble for cozying up to oppressive foreign governments a bit too overtly. Their legend of superiority is progressive leftism, and the great beast they think they have tamed is the People's Republic of China. In the game, Zeal came physically crashing down to Earth and was blanketed in ice and snow. Something to consider as Seattle gets rocked by snowstorms more and more in recent years, while the streets of Seattle fill with graffiti, riots, and the homeless, and empty of everything else.

This is where Amazon and Microsoft live. The unconscious worldview shaped by this place seeps into everything they do, everything they say, everything they think and believe. Their castle in the Cloud is set to come tumbling down in the near future. Don't have too much of your life tied up in siphoning their power for yourself when it happens. Host locally, buy locally, use Free Software.