It is not uncommon to imagine our data as residing in the cloud. Although this metaphor provides a seductive grasp on the complexity of a distributed internet, it obscures as much as it reveals. How data is organized and where it is located is rendered in graspable, naturalized terms, as if our digitalised traces roam the heavens free from social and political complexities; ethereal, immaterial, uncomplicated. But the abrupt materiality of data centres belie such a technicalised metaphor, grounding the cloud in what have become known as ‘21st century factories.’ Not only are these places not free of politics and sociality, they are brimming with them.
Data centres are both utterly located; megaprojects on open landscapes that devour energy and other resources, while also entirely dislocated; crucial nodes without which planetary wide computational infrastructures could not work. But they are about far more than just data storage and retrieval. The micro digital actions of billions of people, of organizations, and of nations are collected, collated, processed, sorted, categorized, analysed, and stored through them. Critical infrastructures rely upon them; hospitals, power systems, traffic systems, banking activities, mobile phone services, knowledge systems. They are interventions into physical, social, and political landscapes; vast quadrants of land occupied by low-rise enclosures. “A farm of sorts, but not for cows,” my taxi driver jokingly says as I drive towards one. “Just servers, servers, and more servers. Imagine that.”
Stepping into one for the first time is an exhilarating material, sensory experience.
I walk into the enclosure.
Blinking. A luminous atmospherics of flashing lights in manifold colours, signalling the reception of photons refracting through fiber optic cables in billions per second beats.
Humming. An acoustics of alternating current buzzing through the endless racks of server stacks piled tightly, one against another, one over another.
Whooshing. A soundscape of air cooling within ventilators, pulsating through corridors, relieving the infernal heat of silicon servers.
Silencing. All the while invisible, noiseless AI; analysing, calculating, and controlling; unnoticed, in the background. Ones and zeros, light and optics, current and heat, air flow and cooling, machine intelligence. And us, devices in hand, somewhere; searching, posting, sharing, commenting.
As our activities accelerate, data accumulates, and storage necessitates, data centres. But data only lives in centres with particular conditions of possibility. Thermal loops of heating, over-heating, and cooling preserve data’s silicon form within more temperate bandwidths. The thermo-politics of energy, the cryo-politics of preservation, the material-politics of land, the knowledge-politics of labor, all have to be arranged, just so. None are ethereal, immaterial, uncomplicated, like the clouds of engineering fantasies. All are dense, foreboding, portentous, like the clouds of intemperate realities.
Author: James Maguire