Cloudcrafting: Data Centers As Anthropological Field Sites
Traditionally, anthropologists would travel to a faraway land and live among a group of people so as to learn as much about their culture and ways of life as possible. Today, however, we conduct fieldwork with people in our own culture just as much as those from others. As such, I am currently working alongside people from diverse areas of the data center industry in order to explore how data center practices and discourses imaginatively intersect with ideas of security, resilience, disaster, and the digital future.
Data centers pervade our lives in ways that many of us probably don’t even realize and we rely on them for even the most mundane activities, from supermarket shopping to satellite navigation. These data infrastructures now underpin such an incredible range of activities and utilities across government, business, and society that it is important we begin to pay attention to them.
I have therefore spent a year navigating the linguistic and mechanical wilderness of the data center industry: its canyons of server cabinet formations; its empty wastelands of white space; its multicolored rivers of cables; its valleys of conferences, expos, and trade shows; its forests filled with the sound of acronyms; and its skies full of twinkling server lights.
While data centers may at first appear without cultural value, just nondescript buildings full of pipes, server cabinets, and cooling systems, these buildings are in fact the tips of a vast sociocultural iceberg-of-ways that we are imagining and configuring both the present and the future. Beneath their surface, data centers say something important about how we perceive ourselves as a culture at this moment in time and what we think it means to be a “digital” society. Working with data centers, cloud computing companies, and industry education specialists such as CNet Training, I am thus approaching data centers as socially expressive artefacts through which cultural consciousness (and unconsciousness) is articulated and communicated.
THE CLOUD UNCLOTHED
CNet Training recently provided me with something of a backstage pass to the cloud when they allowed me to audit their CDCMP® data center program. ‘The cloud,’ as it is commonly known, is a very misleading metaphor. Its connotations of ethereality and immateriality obscure the physical reality of this infrastructure and seemingly suggest that your data is some sort of evaporation in a weird internet water cycle. The little existing academic research on data centers typically argues that the industry strives for invisibility and uses the cloud metaphor to further obscure the political reality of data storage. My ethnographic experience so far, however, seems to suggest quite the opposite; that the industry is somewhat stuck behind the marketable but misleading cloud metaphor that really only serves to confuse customers.
Consequently, it seems that a big part of many data centers’ marketing strategies is to raise awareness that the cloud is material by rendering data centers more visible. We are thus finding ourselves increasingly inundated with high-res images of data centers displaying how stable and secure they are. Data centers, have in fact, become something like technophilic spectacles, with websites and e-magazines constantly showcasing flashy images of these technologically endowed spaces.
The growing popularity of data center photography — a seemingly emerging genre of photography concerned with photographing the furniture of data centers in ways that make it look exhilarating — fuels the fervor and demand for images of techno-spatial excess. Photos of science fictional data centerscapes now saturate the industry and the internet, from Kubrickian stills of sterile, spaceship-like interiors full of reflective aisles of alienware server cabinets to titillating glamour shots of pre-action mist systems and, of course, the occasional suggestive close-up of a CRAC unit. One image in particular recurs in data center advertising campaigns and has quickly become what people imagine when they think of a data center: the image of an empty aisle flanked by futuristic-looking server cabinets bathed in the blue light of coruscating LEDs.
With increased visibility comes public awareness of the physical machinery that powers the cloud mirage. This newfound physicality brings with it the associations of decay, entropy and, most importantly, vulnerability that are endemic to all things physical. As counterintuitive as it may seem, vulnerability is what data centers need so that they may then sell themselves as the safest, most secure, and resilient choice for clients.
SOME (LOOSELY CONNECTED) SOCIAL EFFECTS OF CLOUD CULTURE
The combination of the confusing cloud metaphor with the almost impenetrable, acronym-heavy jargon and the generally inward-looking orientation of the data center sector effectively blackboxes data centers and cloud computing from industry outsiders. This means that the industry has ended up a very middle-aged-male-dominated industry with a severe lack of young people, despite the fact that it’s one of the fastest growing, most high-tech industries in the UK and expected to continue to sustain extraordinary growth rates as internet usage booms with the proliferation of Internet-of-Things technologies. This also makes data centers ripe territory for conspiracy theories and media interest, which is another reason why they increasingly render themselves hyper-visible through highly publicized marketing campaigns. You often get the feeling, however, that these visual odes to transparency are in actual fact deployed to obscure something else, like the environmental implications of cloud computing or the fact that your data is stored on some company’s hard drives in a building somewhere you’ll never be able to access.
Furthermore, while cloud computing makes it incredibly easy for businesses to get online and access IT resources that once only larger companies could afford, the less-talked-about inverse effect of this is that the cloud also makes it incredibly difficult for businesses to not use the cloud. Consider, for a moment, the importance of this. In a world of near-compulsory online presence, the widespread availability and accessibility of IT resources makes it more work for businesses to get by without using the cloud. The cloud not only has an incredibly normative presence but comes with a strange kind of (non-weather-related) pressure, a kind of enforced conformity to be online. It wouldn’t be surprising if we begin to see resistance to this, with businesses emerging whose unique selling point (USP) is simply that they are not cloud-based or don’t have an online presence.
And the current mass exodus into the cloud has seemingly induced a kind of “moral panic” about our increasing societal dependence upon digital technology and, by extension, the resilience, sustainability, and security of digital society and the underlying computer “grid” that supports it. Fear of a potential digital disaster in the cloud-based future is not only reflected by cultural artifacts such as TV shows about global blackouts and books about electromagnetic pulse (EMP), but is also present in a number of practices within the data center industry, from routine disaster recovery plans to the construction of EMP-proof data centers underground for the long-term bunkering of data.
With the help of organizations like CNet Training I am thus studying the social and cultural dynamics of data-based digital “civilization” by analyzing the growing importance of data infrastructures. Qualitative anthropological research is participatory in nature and, as such, relies upon the openness of the people, organizations, and industries with whom the research is conducted. Every industry has its own vocabularies, culture, practices, structures, and spheres of activity and CNet Training’s CDCMP® program acted as a vital window into the complexity of data center lore. It provided me with a valuable insider’s way to learn the hardcore terms of data center speak and also with the opportunity to meet people from all levels of the industry, ultimately equipping me with a detailed, in-depth overview of my field-site. Interdisciplinary and inter-industry sharing of information like this, where technical and academically-orientated perspectives and skills meet, helps not only to bridge fragmented education sectors, but to enable rewarding and enriching learning experiences. I would like to sincerely thank the CNet Training team for assisting my research.