Materializing the Network

There’s a good front-page story in The New York Times today about data centers and power usage that I think contributes to the ongoing process of materializing the network in the public consciousness. The story engages in some useful fact-corralling–for example about the serious environmental impact of having roughly 10% utilization in most cases, so that 90% of a typical center’s humming, hot servers are drawing power from the grid and doing nothing most of the time. In the U.S. during 2010, these huge data centers consumed around 76 billion kilowatt-hours, about 2 percent of the total electricity used. “Worldwide, the digital warehouse use about 30 billion watts of electricity, roughly equivalent to the output of 30 nuclear power plants . . . . ” And the banks of diesel generators required for backup power are notable polluters, even when they’re only being regularly fired up for testing purposes. “Of all the things the Internet was expected to become,” the story points out, “it is safe to say that a seed for the proliferation of backup diesel generators was not one of them.”

Interestingly, the article gives these facts a cultural context, connecting them to what it calls the “mythology” of the Internet, “where lives are lived in the ‘virtual’ world and all manner of memory is stored in “‘the cloud’,” and it bluntly observes that the “physical realities of data” are very different from that mythology. Average users, even some power users, it suggests, have little or no sense of the physical dimension of the network, “no sense that data is [sic] physical or that storing it uses up space and energy.” This is the same perception gap that provided the occasion for the very good recent book about the physical infrastructure of the Internet by Andrew Blum, Tubes.

On the other hand, Blum’s book and this article can be seen as among the signs that the older “mythology” (or ideology) of the virtual and the immaterial is beginning to break up, like a cloud dispersing a bit, however unevenly.

Ignorance certainly persists, but the Times article may I think sell people short. They may not always remember, precisely, that the cloud requires cooling systems and generators and hard drives in a warehouses in Virginia or Illinois, but most people are dimly aware of these facts. Stories like this are crucial for creating environmental awareness, but they depend on the pre-existing conditions of the eversion. People are increasingly being made aware, in sometimes small and symbolic ways, of the physical (and monetary) dimension of data and the network that gathers and transmits it, starting on a mundane scale with knowing where the dead zones are around their home or place of business, moving around to look for “more bars” when accessing the cellular network, or monitoring their own or the family’s data plans from wireless carriers, and extending to the recent artistic interest in digital-to-physical glitches and other manifestations of the limits of the data flow. The Times article itself is another marker of the increasing public awareness of the materialities behind the mythology of the Internet.

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