Some years ago, I lived near a quiet university campus. A new building was constructed. I had developed somewhat of an admiration for the building, observing it from afar when I’d go for a run on the campus. Chunky, but stylish. Depending on the light, on darker days it could be rather bland, on others, it would shimmer. Rendered in black and white, the exterior displays a subtle pattern of long, stretched triangular shapes, covering its façade. Passing by, it subtly shifts from light to darker grey, sometimes to silver during golden hour, and back again. The gist of the building is its moiré pattern, which makes the façade appear animate when passing by. It grows on you, it’s kind of sexy. The building has no windows. And as it turns out, it doesn’t really need any. It’s a data centre. It’s home only to servers.
A man lives in the countryside. One day, digging the soil in his garden, he hits something hard. Taking it to be a root, he cuts away. The root not being a root, turns out to be an internet cable. Subjected to the force of a shovel, he cuts off the internet connection to the entire nearby village. Imagining him in his garden renders connectivity so visible; it’s implied here he lives his life off the grid,– and then suddenly hitting that vein of the internet. It’s a rather archaic story, but it speaks to the imagination, doesn’t it?
Transoceanic cables face only a few dangers in their ocean floor habitat. Sharks, ships anchors, and seaquakes, that’s it. It’s a different story when those cables reach the shore. The point were a transoceanic cable washes ashore is called a landing point. That’s where they become more vulnerable, and hence, are thicker. Anything from squirrels to foreign enemies could potentially sabotage a network. And so, the less we know, the better. Hence, landing points are sometimes disguised as regular brick and mortar buildings, blending in with local architecture. Either by constructing very plain, nondescript buildings with no windows at all, or by simulating the local design style. Either way, the surveillance cameras, lack of human activity, and heavy fencing are unmistakable clues.
The data centre on the university campus is surrounded by a moat; an artificial canal that encloses the building. A cosmetic safety measure, albeit a somewhat ironic one, which presupposes lifting a drawbridge to avert an attack. But the true Achilles heel of a data centre is in fact its water supply. Data centres require vast amounts of water for cooling. Air-conditioning is a vital part of its existence. Should, say, terrorists want to attack a country, business, or government, a highly effective way would be to deprive data centres of water. In an age of digital warfare, to cut off their water supply is to cut off their lifeline.
In 1858, explorer Alexander von Humboldt published his seminal book Kosmos and its accompanying Atlas. On his travels across the globe, he observed that ecology should not be classified according to continents, but rather as zones where vegetation and climate are determined by altitude and latitude. His maps came accompanied by illustrations, for instance of diagrams of the Himalaya and the Andes depicting the similarities in vegetation at various altitudes. Today, scientists still use those diagrams to map and observe the consequences of the climate crisis. Groundbreaking for the time – during which geographers and scientists considered ecology on a far more local scale – Humboldt called this worldview the 'web of life'. In his diaries he writes about his fascination for another network: that of the then new telegraph cables. Those cables ran across the ocean floors, connecting trading hubs across the globe. Humboldt had received a specimen of a telegraph cable as a gift, which he kept in his personal collection. Transoceanic fibre-optic cable has since replaced the telegraph cables, yet their routes often remain the same.
Ever since the early personal computers, we’ve been using vocabulary for physical objects (a desktop, a bin, a folder) to render digital abstractions perceptible. Take, for instance, the term login. A derivative from the marine world, to log in comes from the measurement system to record a ships pace by lowering a string of rope with knots into the water as a way to measure its speed. A wooden log was tied to the end of the rope. The records were kept in a log book, from which the terms to log on and to log off originate. Similarly, we mine cryptocurrencies, and store data in server farms. In a mere half-century, we’ve minimised manual labour, and now construct an architecture whose users are not human. We’re building buildings for servers. The proliferation of these rural and industrial metaphors might serve as an attempt to render the internet as harmless, and more relatable?