Part 1: Metaphors

The internet is amorphous. It is unseen. It can’t be touched, we can’t physically be present within it even as we continue to talk about it as a kind of “space”.

There’s a lot of different language used to talk about the internet that has evolved over time. The world wide web and “the net” spoke to the technology’s functions as a network, a system of nodes and connections, decentralized and stretching, multi-layered and rhizomatic. It is a thing that we construct intentionally yet it is spoken of as a living, breathing thing.

The internet as a thing spun about by many creators, a fabric, woven together across space and time to connect us mentally while we’re physically separate. The internet exists as a site of alternative currencies, much as how textiles have functioned for millenia. This language serves as a reminder of both the female-gendered ties to computer technology as well as the capitalist industry and automation that came about with the advent of the industrial age.

Illustration of Arachne, the weaver of Greek mythology punished by Athena and turned spider

Most commonly, the Internet is seen as a virtual space, a cartography of different co-existing realities. A place where actual places become expanded, former countries are remembered and new ones invented. A technolandscape, populated by metaphors of clouds, streams, and waves.

Are these images truly representative of the language we use?

The type of language used to describe the web, specifically its infrastructure, is secretive, obscure, abstract. These terms only serve to mask the everyday realities of our world in the digital era, intentionally deceiving us into believing that our data travels through the air, rather than through fiber optic cables, or lives in the stratosphere instead of in servers.

This language is what we cling to when we try and describe the unseen, when we try and exercise our power over our own creation while realizing it has grown larger than us, controlling and modifying behavior. That which is unseen is portrayed in our mytho-narratives as having the strongest, most powerful force - air, magic, God, to name but a few others [1].

This unseen space is not fictive. IT does not rest within one person’s imagination, but is constructed by a collective conscious and exists as a collectively lived experience to be accessed.

But how does engaging in the internet, being online, mask our physical realities? Is it simply a form of escapism or is it a way of imagining new realms? The internet has taken Marx’s object fetishism a step further - now, we hardly recognize the objects we use to access this psycho-virtual territory. Instead, we perceive a seamless communication, a feeling of being within this space.

Such an engagement requires consideration, particularly since we continue to advance towards forms of engagement that seek to further place our bodies within virtual space and actively “abstract away” the physical [2]. How many users truly understand their online actions and the real physical and emotional consequences? How does this language distance us from reality and allow human and environmental damage go unchecked?

Part 2: Natural Resources

Ultimately, the internet is based on physical processes and real materials. Our captive minds often don’t consider the physicality of the computer object, unless something goes wrong, say with the fan or the battery. The computer, or tablet, or smart phone are simply vehicles to go somewhere else. In the case of some technology, it simply feels like an extension of self.

While we think of the internet as a space, we disregard the actual land that given up to millions of data centers. Data centers are commonly measured in terms of “football fields”, speaking not only to their immense footprint as well as the American-dominated practice of building them [3]. Even though these centers are technology behemoths, very little is actually known about them, including the current amount across the world. The veil of secrecy shrouding these sites is so extreme that even the federal government was shocked to find that it had an extra 2,000 in its name [4].

Microsoft Data Center

The lack of thought on the part of most Americans to data centers and their locations is in stark contrast to the industry. Much thought and deliberation is given towards their placement, in terms of what best serves user consumption rates, how to prevent shutdowns, as well as environmental factors such as earthquakes, fires, and floods [5]. Data centers are clustered in specific formations to continue to provide service in such occasions, so someone in New York does not need to feel the disruptions of an earthquake in San Francisco that could interfere with their Facebook stalking.

All of this secrecy has made it extremely difficult to analyze centers’ activities, particularly their environmental impact. One can easily assume that any building of this size would eat up quite a few resources, but it is well-documented that data centers in particular are notorious for wasting energy and water - even so far as shutting down grids and contributing to droughts [6]. Another metric data centers use is WUE - Water Use Efficiency. If servers overheat, systems shut down and people lose access to part of the cybersphere. So millions of gallons of water are used everyday to keep things cool. Brings a new meaning to 2015’s favorite phrase, Netflix and Chill [7].

Colocation Data Centers Worldwide

The stability of these data solutions rests on the availability of these natural resources, which the NSA and anti-surveillance activists are well aware of. After the power outage in 2006 near Baltimore, the NSA begin looking for a new location where they could have greater conrol over water supplies and electricity. Now with a new center outside of Salt Lake City in Utah, a state that experiences drought frequently, the NSA can operate because of their ability to take control of utilities. Right-wing Anti-NSA activists are a small group who has considered these implications, realizing that targeting water supply can be an effective action against surveillance attempts [8].

The irony is that we have come to use the language of water to talk about data phenomenon - from clouds to streams to the current forecast of a “data tsunami” - the fluidity of water and the analogy of pipe and tap infrastructure has been recast to describe an invisible “flow”. Clouds give the sense that we have come to the zenith of our data storage progress, finally achieving a material-less archival unit when in fact everything is simply stored on-site elsewhere. Your photos, music, videos may no longer come in physical packaging but it still has a real, material presence.[9] The center of America, that oft-forgot space, has become the attic of the general population, continuing the tech industry’s quest of making us forget what truly exists.

The coming data tsunami?

Part 3: People and Labor

What also remains unseen and disregarded are the people who make the internet work. The miners, assemblers, cable-layers. Those that enter data by hand and those that ensure the data is available. When we go online, not only do we sometimes forget the physical components that make up technology and our online immersive experiences, but like many objects we engage with we do not think of the relations of labor that have brought them to us.

If we think about it, most objects we use to access the internet seek to physically erase themselves. For the most part, technology has sought to shrink, smooth and make itself sleeker. This is especially true for apple products, who have always designed their work to promote the intuitive, seamless interaction. Even simply that most macintosh computers have been white or silver, as opposed to the bulkier, darker PCs. Apple would have us think that their products come into the world as they are, lifted right from the sketchbook.

Going...Going...Soon to be gone?

There is a general speculative future idea that technology is supposed to be clean in its appearance and fluid in its interaction. It is built on automation and efficiency. Industry, on the other hand, has connotations of messiness, darkness, smog and subservient human laborers. Apple’s image was blown apart in 2012 when it was revealed that they employed thousands of Chinese laborers working in less-than-ideal factory conditions. It was almost as if the hordes of loyal iPhone users couldn’t believe that their most beloved object wasn’t simply birthed, whole out of a tank of steel , but rather carefully assembled out of many discrete components by a 20-something girl from Shenzen [10].

The iPhone - a gift from god?


Years before that story emerged, many activists were urging people to think about another human-rights case in relation to their devices - rare-earth mineral mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A politically unstable country that many smart-phone users would not even be able to identify on a map, this is the site where most of the materials come from. Yet even though their job is crucial to a multi-billion dollar industry, these workers live in absolute poverty and violence [11].

Click Videos to Play

This is nothing to say of the millions who are now employed somehow in digital labor, a sector that sees corporate financial giants but still thinks its ok to pay employees less than minimum wage. What defines a skill within the industry seems less more predicated on traditional patriarchal, white-supremacist notions while continuing to create and maintain oppressive structures. Take Uber and Task-Rabbit, so-called “sharing economy” companies that exploit financially-precarious workers to support a minority of privileged programmers [12]. Or Amazon’s MechanicalTurk, an interesting and disappearing sector of jobs that are on their way to being made obsolete by machine-learning yet are too tedious for an elite worker but still too difficult for a computer to do properly.

Part 4: Information Gardens

But what does it mean to deeply consider the ethics and capitalist structures that bring us these transcendent experiences? Is awareness enough? And to be honest, would we really try and alter how things are an our online experiences? Internet profits off of its escapism. Like with most challenging things, people shrug their shoulders, look away and keep distracting themselves.

In most articles written about the inefficiency and wastefulness of data centers, most cite that it is the demands of the user that push the high-operation needs and ceaseless construction of data centers across the world. The premium is on maintaining and improving user experience and interaction, and that instantaneous moment of when a person clicks their mouse and they receive something in return. Of course, it is the businesses that [seek] to suffer if these expectations aren’t met, so for not the first time in history, environmental and human concerns go largely ignored in the face or capitalistic gain.

So as users, do we need to reflect on our expectations? Or are we led to believe in the ease of computing and that it comes without any cost? We’re already comfortable sacrificing our privacy and personal data. More so, those who do care don’t feel like we even have a choice in whether or not to participate. Leaving social media is a death knell. If we were to go off grid we’d find that the reality we’ve returned to is still being pillaged by our friends and family.

As fast as data centers are erected, just as fast are people getting online [13]. And as people get online, they’re not thinking about how much water and energy are being consumed by their netflix and chill sessions. [Actually, they’re not even thinking that they’re on the internet (link to article)] In this quote from The New York Times:

“With no sense that data is physical or that storing it uses up space and energy, those consumers have developed the habit of sending huge data files back and forth, like videos and mass e-mails with photo attachments. Even the seemingly mundane actions like running an app to find an Italian restaurant in Manhattan or a taxi in Dallas requires servers to be turned on and ready to process the information instantaneously.” [14]

The internet is no longer seen as some kind of luxury item. Some are even arguing that wifi access should be considered a human right, like water, which is somewhat ironic given that our usage of the internet is depleting that specific resource. We have entered into thinking of the internet as a utility, just as foreshadowed by Paul Valery, pulled from Walter Benjamin’s essay, “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”:

“Just as water, gas, and electricity are brought into our houses from far off to satisfy our needs in response to a minimal effort, so we shall be supplied with visual or auditory images, which will appear and disappear at a simple movement of the hand, hardly more than a sign.” [15]

It’s a push-pull relationship between tech companies and their consumers. They say they want to satisfy a need, but are they in truth generating a need? There are those of us who remember dial-up, and the hours we used to wait for videos to load. It’s still that way across the globe.

The metaphorical language we use to talk about the internet and our practices online just further acts to distance us from the consequence of our actions. How is it possible to measure physical impact and environmental impact when we speak in terms of imaginary space [16]?

This secretive nature is in direct opposition of the mission of many tech companies that ask their users to hand over all their personal information in exchange for free services. Is it not slightly ironic that its almost impossible to visit data centers yet you could probably check in at one on foursquare?

Part of this secrecy is based in security concerns and trade secrets, but it also reveals the immense feelings of fear, particularly the fear of failure, that most tech companies have. Data centers are seen as “unit of failure” - the larger the center, the larger the impact it could have if it were to fail [17]. It is obvious that as a nation we have become heavily reliant on online connectivity and there are major risks that can occur if the grid were to go, hence the “availability zones” to account for failures and access in case of any kind of (typically) geographical situation - earthquake, flood, fire, etc.

What’s interesting is that in light of these fears, most data centers and corporate-funded researches call for greater centralization of data computing services. Such an initiative is seen as an environmental choice, because its not the giant, many-football field sized data centers that are wasting our resources but it is the small ones that are inefficiently run [18]. No word on what it would mean to further the monopolization of certain companies.

Data center construction has rapidly increased since the 1990s, yet can the average person really speak to how their data is stored? I propose we imagine alternatives. Rather than this increased centralization, what if it was the opposite? What if we as citizens, as community members built our data servers and provided our own source of internet providers? There are many examples world-wide of such groups, particularly in Europe but also including one in Red Hook.

Perhaps belonging to a community wireless network would inspire greater engagement and interest amongst users into how they engage with online content as well as designing and taking care of their own information. Such projects could have potential geo-political ramifications as the relationship of physical space to cyberspace and issues of network connectivity often relate to real-world boundaries and international relations. If internet can have more of a presence - physical, local, community driven - perhaps that is the way to be more ecological and create infrastructure that moves towards equity amongst its users. As the community garden movement revolutionized the way we thought and learned about food education, so can community wireless networks become spaces for us to educate others about the realities of the internet.

Can we imagine and grow a new type of internet infrastructure?


[1] Larsen, Lars Bang. Networks. Cambridge: MIT, 2014. Print. Whitechapel: documents of contemporary art







[8] e-flux: "Captives of the Cloud, Part III: All Tomorrow's Clouds." The Internet Does Not Exist. Ed. Julieta Aranda, Brian Kuan Wood, and Anton Vidokle. Berlin: Sternberg, 2015. 320. Print. E-Flux Journal





[13] “This combines with our voracious hunger for more data on smartphones to grow data center power usage faster than efficiency gains can keep a lead on consumption, the report argues. In one example, a Chinese telco managed to increase the power efficiency of its data-carrying network by 50 percent, but still saw its use jump through the roof as more and more people grabbed mobile devices and started browsing.""