This article was written by Manuel Beltrán, Luis Rodil-Fernández and Pawel Pokutycki of the Alternative Learning Tank in the Netherlands; it originally appeared on their site. We are grateful to them and to ALT for allowing us to share it with our readers. In this field trip to a data centre, the students learn some disappointing, but essential, lessons about data privacy, data commodification, individual rights versus expediency, and the decentralized and alienating nature of information technology work. And it’s not even a NATO facility!
“I need everybody’s ID” she said without a smile. This would be the first of a number of security checks necessary before the visit to the data center could begin, every security check doubling as a reality check. The idealistic mirage of user-generated content, the friendly face of the web as a public space, exist only behind an electrified fence, permanently watched by a thousand electronic eyes. It feels ironic that the same industry that doesn’t hesitate in deploying state-of-the-art surveillance in its own facilities feels victim to state-run surveillance programs aimed at the very data they host.
Few of our students had any idea of what a data center was, or what role they play in the infrastructure of the Internet. Some ventured to guess, some had even seen pictures, but none had ever felt on their skin the chill of the rooms cooled with brutally efficient air conditioning systems; none had ever experienced the deafening roar of corridor after corridor chock-full of power-hungry machines.
On November the 18th a group of students from two Dutch art academies visited a datacenter as part of a joint effort by the facilitators of the Alternative Learning Tank. ALT, as we affectively call it, tries to encourage students to think critically about technology, as well as research what it means to be a citizen in a world in which technology is entering many aspects of our daily lives. Visiting a datacenter reveals the physical substrate of the network of networks in a way that is physical and raw. Due to the high-security nature of these infrastructures, not many people have access to this experience.
Datacenters are hubs of centralization in a network we often think of as decentralized. Comparable in some ways to the factories of times past, they differ in that the actual labour largely happens somewhere else. About 30 staff are required to act as “remote hands” for thousands of customers, hosted in some 80000 servers. There is little in the way of actual labour executed in the facility itself. As in factories the fencing, building, and machinery are all there, but labour generally happens somewhere else. Other aspects that it shares with a factory are the large size of the facilities, and the staggering amount of electricity that it requires. Power consumption for this datacenter is almost on a par with that of the city just a few blocks away.
It turns out that the electricity bill of the datacenter is one of the most important cost analysis factors in its design. Power efficiency is the main driver of this datacenter’s design, and they have reasons to be proud, as it seems that not many others can boast energy-efficiency figures quite as good as this one. As datacenters amass more and more of the world’s information, fewer data lives in servers stashed away in closets, offices, and places where power efficiency is not so delicately balanced. As a result, savouring power efficiency also means that the topology of the network becomes more centralized, and thus a little bit more fragile to attacks on both infrastructure and data.
Our group was quick in getting straight to the bottom of things, and questions about jurisdiction were among the first. “What happens when you get a request to take down a server?” The answer was quick to follow, almost as if rehearsed. “We are a Dutch company, subject to Dutch law, so when Dutch authorities come with a warrant we comply, but there are about 270 countries, and many more law enforcement bodies, and we have many international customers.” The ambiguity about what they do with non-Dutch requests leaves some of us wanting more but the vice president of operations that is hosting us today prefers to keep these stories for himself.
The Netherlands boasts some 400 datacenters, about 80 of which are co-location facilities like the one we visited. Most of these datacenters operate with similar design principles in mind: redundancy at every layer of the service, and those little bits that cannot be made redundant, such as the national power grid. The datacenter must provide some backup; a complex system of uninterrupted power supplies and diesel generators are there to prevent the lights from ever going out.
To test the fidelity of the datacenter employees to the service agreements that they have with their customers we imagined a fictional doomsday scenario in which the raising of water levels due to impending natural disaster put out the national grid. We then asked the engineer, “Would you still power on the diesel generators, knowing about environmental disaster?” He immediately replied, “Of course. It is my job!” Such a duty-oriented mind is surely rewarded in this industry.
So green is only green for as long as we can keep the diesel generators off. Of course this point is moot, as by then it would already be too late for the diesel generators to have any real impact in the already runaway natural disaster scenario. But nonetheless, there is certain poetry in knowing that should doomsday be anything like that, and with many datacenters having similar design, the servers will continue running for a few hours longer after all humans have perished.
In a visit to a datacentre like this the Internet and its immaterial connections become tangible, as overwhelming to the senses as perhaps disappointing to the mind. None of the glamour and friendly marketing-speak of the average app is present in the reality of the datacenter. This high-security facility, hosting rack after rack of impersonal, dispassionate cooled metal, couldn’t be at a greater contrast to the marketing of the applications that run on that metal.
Featured Image of Austrian Datacentre by Karl Schönswetter on Flickr
The Alternative Learning Tank is a nomadic school and artistic organization that focuses in the research, creation and implementation of educational programs on progressive and radical fields of knowledge that are not contemplated by educational institutions. It strives for a reform of those institutions, embracing how knowledge is being produced and transferred in the XXI century. Drawing from precedents such as contemporary social movements, digital rights, hacker culture, new media and a general critical stand point about technology. ALT develops a practice of intellectual production and advocacy at the intersection between pedagogy, art and activism.