WRITTEN BY BOAZ LEVIN
--The Cloud, Percy Bysshe Shelley
Equal parts building and machine, library and public utility, vault and status symbol, data centres are the unwitting monuments of knowledge production in our current age. “The cloud” is the symbolic counterpart of these anti-monuments, their smokescreen. As a metaphor, "the cloud" encapsulates the dream of a pervasive, ever changing, formless net of nets; it is technology sublated into nature, into air — traceless and light. Yet, while our “smart tools” and communication devices become smaller, thinner, and sleeker, the weight of the cloud has increased, demanding an ever-growing physical infrastructure, affecting and shaping our landscape. Our propensity to think of the Internet and data as abstract is itself both a product of a certain ideology and an impediment to critique. The metaphor of the cloud casts a shadow on technology’s vast and very real material landscape.
All That Is Solid Melts Into Data (2015), a film I co-directed with Ryan Jeffery, explores the often overlooked materiality of networked technologies. We set out to elucidate their social, environmental, and economic impact and to call into question the structures of power that have developed out of technologies of global computation. By way of the data centre, the film presents a historical-material geography of the web. It explores the juridical, architectonic, economic, and epistemological infrastructure — the “backbone,” as it is called within the telecommunications industry — of this seemingly ephemeral, placeless, and virtual phenomenon. By tracing the historical geography of the so-called "cloud" we take a step closer to better understanding both its present manifestation and towards envisioning its future.
From the outset of our investigation, we were faced with the double challenge of representing both a nexus as complex and ubiquitous as the World Wide Web, and a protagonist as abstract as data. The story of how our world has come to be seen as a sum of data that can only be understood through the lens of “analytics” might be a difficult one to tell, but it is anything but abstract. Rather, it is very much a story of the persistence of matter. Energy and natural resources, questions of labour, the role of physical proximity, the gradual layering of technologies on top of each other, and the geographical contingency of juridical processes: all these questions play a central role within this history.
From the very beginning, our process commenced under the conceit that one must use the Internet in order to research the Internet. This was as much a result of the Internet's ubiquity as it was a conscious decision to take an introspective critical stance, exposing our own modes of production as filmmakers. Our work thus began, as work often does nowadays, with googling. We mapped the central nodes on the World Wide Web by virtually highlighting data centres and networked infrastructure hidden in nondescript buildings scattered around the country. We also visited remote locations by virtual proxy (thanks to Google’s extensive mapping initiatives). Subsequently, we began physically visiting the locations we had mapped. With Ryan in the States, and I in Europe, we filmed the facades of the switching hubs and the data centres that enable our instantaneous global communication. Finally, we sent packets of data back and forth across the Atlantic: film-editing on the cloud.
The locations captured in the film are situated, for the most part, around the hotspots of networked infrastructure: the American Midwest, Silicon Valley, Manhattan, New Jersey, and Germany. The locations of these hotspots is no coincidence. They emphasize the current hegemony of the Unites States and Western Europe within networked capitalism. We also discovered that the routes of fiber optic cables trace those of railroads, telegraphs, and highways. The juridical infrastructures of the burgeoning data centre industry — tax regulations and trading zones, privacy laws, and national jurisdictions — are thus all based upon and negotiated within the frameworks that were initially laid out for earlier networked technologies. Like hermit crabs, the infrastructures of the new digital age have come to inhabit the shells left by their industrial predecessors.
As privately operated public utilities, data centres are ambivalent structures, architectonic amalgams. Take for example, New York City’s 111 Eighth Avenue. Constructed in 1932, the structure originally served as the Commerce building for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The edifice exceeds the Empire State Building in size by over one million square feet in floor-space, making it New York’s third largest building. But rather than spreading vertically towards the clouds though, it sprawls horizontally. This “groundscraper” occupies an entire city block between Eighth and Ninth avenues and 15th and 16th streets. An essential hub of Maritime trade in its day, 111 Eighth Avenue was once a testament to twentieth-century American industrial might. Today, 111 Eighth Avenue is owned by Google. The company acquired and refurbished the building for an estimated $1.9 billion in 2010. Though Google owns the property, other principal actors of networked infrastructure — Digital Realty Trust, Equinix, Telx, Level 3, and telecommunication companies Verizon and Sprint — are also tenants. Once a central node in a network of goods and commodities, the building now houses a network of signals and information. The structure that enframed the might of American industry is now a key hub for global connectivity in the post-industrial era.
Unlike the bombastic and extroverted character of many industrial-era structures however, the data centres of the present often stand as anti-monuments to importance of the information they house. Rarely do these structures have windows, and if they do, they are shuttered or mirrored. A striking example is John Carl Warnecke’s 1974 brutalist Cold War monolith at 33 Thomas Street in Manhattan. The building is one of the most secure structures in the United States. Originally designed in 1974 for AT&T’s telephone switching equipment, the building was built to be self-sufficient and protected from nuclear fallout for up to two weeks. Urbanist William H. Whyte once asserted that the massive windowless structure featured the world’s tallest blank wall.
The Web — in our phones, laptops, or smart watches — is now often the first thing we see in the morning, and the last thing we see before falling asleep. Yet, despite its ever growing pervasiveness, the Internet is only becoming less visible. While the opaque architecture of data centres enables the net to further retreat out of sight, “the cloud’s” invisibility cannot be attributed solely to the the physical structures that underlie it. In his preface to The Geopolitical Aesthetic, Frederic Jameson noted that late, global capitalism forms “a system so vast that it cannot be encompassed by the natural and historically developed categories of perception with which human beings normally orient themselves.” The sheer mass and complexity of world systems such as the internet causes a cognitive lapse that can render them imperceptible. In some senses then, our attempt at rendering visible and mapping the web was destined to fail. Despite our travels we could only unearth a miniscule sample of stories, but this sample was enough to dispel a prevalent myth concerning the immateriality of the so called “virtual” and to affirm the necessity of matter to the internet.
For Jameson “the absence of a practice of orientation that would be able to connect the abstractions of capital to the sense-data of everyday perception is… an impediment to any socialist project”(see: Jeff Kinkle and Alberto Toscano, Cartographies of the Absolute, Zero Books, 2015. P 7). In order to understand the world of late capitalism, one must therefore devise creative means to grasp the logic of its “world-systems.” The internet seemed, to us, emblematic of the logic of late capitalism: a harbinger of globalization; a vast and complex network, omnipresent yet largely invisible; a conduit of capital, enmeshing distant regions and actors. And what could be more symptomatic of the abstractions of global capital than the metaphor of “the cloud”-- the fantasy of a global computational machine without a “body,” and lacking any physical manifestation? Data centers and their clouds are but the last in a line of technologies of global capitalism that obfuscate our relationship with our surrounding environment. Though it is often heralded as increasing transparency and as a new equalizer, the web thrives only by being swathed in obscurity. If we are to better understand the contours of the data-driven driven present, let alone those of its future, mapping the material reality of its infrastructures is a necessary first step.