Data as Place: Aesthetics and Geopolics of Data Centre Architecture
Amber Frid-Jimenez, Associate Professor, KHIB, Bergen,
Ben Dalton, Principal Lecturer, Leeds Metropolitan University, Leeds, UK
Joe Dahmen, Assistant Professor, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada
Data as Place merges artistic and scientific research to
investigate the global network of physical data centres. The
project will use geopolitical mapping, data visualization, and
architectural analysis of existing and proposed data centres to
generate design proposals that expose the problematics and
aesthetics offered by the physical installations on which the
virtual flow of information depends.
The world's data increases ten-fold every five years. Massive amounts of information move across globally distributed networks as the data is processed, broken down, archived, and repackaged. The ease with which
this information moves makes data seems placeless: the cloud is invisible territory simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. However, processing and storing the vast flow of virtual information requires significant physical
assets. The ever-expanding global network of physical data centres that have arisen to meet the demands that the flow of information require have an equally insatiable need for energy to keep all of the bits flowing freely. Inchoate as it seems, the virtual cloud is inextricably tethered to these physical installations, and kept aloft only by massive inputs of conventional energy.
Owing to their key role in the flow of information as well as their extensive energy requirements, data centers have been the subject of territorial disputes and international conflict. The 500,000 data centre locations spread across the globe can be read as barometers of contemporary geopolitical and economic forces. The energy required to operate these installations collectively outranks the energy demand of all but five countries. At the intersection of global politics and free-market forces, these locations are determined by a balance of favorable data regulation, access to affordable energy power, and tax incentives created by local and sovereign governments.
Computation and energy for cooling are paramount, but the physical and regulatory freedom to operate are no less important: an overly controlling government or the absence of sufficient connection infrastructure renders sites less viable.
Writing about the development of information infrastructure, Keller Easterling has pointed out that many of its physical assets are intentionally hidden from public view. Once the domain of national governments, information infrastructure is now largely constructed, operated, and maintained by major multinational corporations. These corporations, which include Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft, have a similar vested interest in maintaining control over of the flow of goods and information once exercised by national governments, but a reach at once more extensive and less transparent. The planning for data centres is cloaked in secrecy. Where large amounts of land are required it is often acquired under a handful of pseudonym companies that help maintain the anonymity of the actual sponsors.
Where governments run data centres, they take pains to conceal data centre locations for security reasons. Unmarked buildings hum through the night, city data switches growing to fill existing architecture. Older buildings are gutted and retrofitted with racks of switches and drives, leaving anonymous offices and factory façades intact. Even as increasing access to information at all levels holds the promise of more free and open societies, the physical assets required for the access to information are kept secret, hidden from view in plain sight, the better to assume ultimate control over the information flows.
As computation speeds increase and globally located markets grow, the even distribution globally of these processing centres will become increasingly important, exacerbating extant geopolitical issues. Faster connection speeds can mean a few microseconds winning advantage in trading or tracking.
Calculation load can also be balanced around the world. Current data centres cater to massive scales of economy, favoring cheap boxes on cheap land, but in these are unlikely to be the only solution in the future. Plans are being developed for data freighters and platforms at sea, data drones and data zeppelins in the sky. Companies are already working towards data shipping containers, the standard unit of measurement of intermodal transport. And data architects may look toward colonizing currently uninhabitable places with data: the depths of the sea; radioactive waste stores; mountain tops; and deserts. TheData as Place project will investigate the aesthetic ramifications of the physical nature of data, and its often contentious relationship to place.
Data as Place will be the first pilot project of Data is Political, a conference held at KHiB during April 2012 in which artists, designers and engineers offered diverse perspectives on the politics of data and information design. A presentation of the project at the Sensuous Knowledge conference would provide an opportunity to show a curated collection of photographs, diagrams and video, which tell a story about the obscure and
often overlooked territory of global data infrastructure, in the context of the larger project plan.