Category Archives: CLOUD

The Globalization of the Landscape

When companies sell us the cloud, it seems that they are talking about something magical and fantastic. Its imagery is futuristic looking, filled with shiny lights, and coming from a science-fiction movie. However, we are not concerned about what the cloud is. They are black-boxed and top-secret places, where all our information takes live.

We have seen attempts from the companies to make those spaces more transparent. They open the doors to the cameras and display all the machines. Yet, this hypervisibility of the infrastructure and this pure image that they give of the cloud allows them to keep the people naive.

The truth is that the cloud relies on data-centers that stock all that information that we generate every day. One of its effects is the need for infrastructure around the planet. These buildings are environments designed from humans to robots, and for that reason, their design is a copy-paste around the world. Data-centers are structures designed for machines, which means that no human is working in that environment, so there is no need to follow cultural necessities. 

Images from data centers around the globe.

In the same manner during industrialization, the landscape was also affected by the construction of new buildings. Hilla and Bernd Becher, two german photographers, recorded these changes in the landscape from the late 1950s [1]. In their work, we can see collections of images depicting industrial buildings. Even if the buildings have very similar shapes because they have the same finality, there are subtle differences probably because of the construction methods and the cultural necessities from each place.

Pictures from Hilla and Bernd Becher’s work.

In the future, we will need more infrastructure to support all the data that we generate. Jennifer Holt and Patrick Vonderau write about one of the upcoming “technological dramas” that the technology in data storage is not as developed as the amount of information to store [2]. In conclusion, the landscape is going to be even more exploited in the future, overcrowded with the same buildings all over the surface.

References:

[1] Biro, M. (2012). From analog to digital photography: Bernd and Hilla Becher and Andreas Gursky. History of Photography.

[2] Holt, J. and Vonderau, P. Where the Internet Lives. Data centers as cloud infrastructure. Signal Traffic.

 

~ Alicia Romero

The Truth behind Pixels

Loop

At first glance, the development of the present media infrastructure, made by an articulated system of data centers, routers, cloud off-ramps, cables, satellites, and so on, seems unstoppable. Nicole Starosielski argues that we are in a feedback loop wherein data cables can be considered resources for audiovisual media and the very media are projected as resources for cables, allowing “the speculative development of large-scale infrastructural projects in the absence of any actual circulation.” [1]
Although media history is often characterized as a progression toward greater definition, fidelity, and truthfulness, is humanity going to rely more and more on those data-expensive media-rich contents?

Compression

Contemporary art, indeed, has already a long story of experimentations with a certain aesthetic of compression, described by Jonathan Sterne describes as a form of “proper management of content for the transmission lines” through the reduction of signal size for fitting in the media infrastructure. [2] As Hito Steyerls explains, the “poor image” is the copy made for movement: the more it accelerates, the more it deteriorates. [3]
Valentina Tanni explains that since xerox art to glitch art “pixels, primary elements of the computerized image, have been exhibited and exalted, […] low-definition is taken as one of the multiple possibilities of the image.” [4]
Simonetta Fadda argues that we have given to the HD image the task of replacing the reality that it reproduces, though this process inevitably “sanitize and sweeten” the contradictions of the very reality. [5] Consequently, lo-fi is a political choice that wants to ignore mainstream aesthetic and copyright culture, transforming quality into accessibility. [3]

Fidelity

As also Tanni points out, smartphones and webcams, far exceeding professional equipment, combined with lack of graphic education, generate a visual landscape where lo-fi images are the most frequent and authentic occurrence. Indeed, while looking at a “poor” image we would not doubt of manipulation, since, if it was, it would have been evident. On the contrary, a high-quality image is black-boxed: it does not reveal how far it has been manipulated.

While high-quality images are better at immersing us into a realistic representation of our visual existence, but keeping undisclosed their processual complexity, lo-fi images are democratically produced by the average digital citizen and “testify to the violent dislocation, transferrals, and displacement of images — their acceleration and circulation within the vicious cycles of audiovisual capitalism.” [3] Realism is not that realistic anymore.

Hyper-reality

Since this rising appreciation of the aesthetic of compression, the fact the humanity is heading directly towards a massive usage of media-rich contents can be put into discussion. Maybe the global mediatic infrastructure will not be overloaded and consequently overpowered (the usage makes the infrastructure!) just for a refusal to hyperreality.
After all, we sometimes prefer calling to video-calling, texting to audio, photographing to recording a video.


Notes:

[1] Nicole Starosielski, Fixed Flow, from Lisa Parks and Nicole Starosielski, Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures, University of Illinois Press (2015)

[2] Jonathan Sterne, MP3: The Meaning of a Format, Duke University Press (2012)

[3] Hito Steyerl, In Defense of Poor Image, E-Flux (9th December 2009)

[4] Valentina Tanni, Memestetica: Il Settembre Eterno dell’Arte, Nero (2020)

[5] Simonetta Fadda, Definizione Zero, Costa & Nolan (1999)

Greening Google

In the mediatic sphere, there is a strong association between the imaginaries of digitization, electricity, and environmentalism. We do think that an electric car is “greener” than a diesel-fueled one. We do imagine smart cities fully digitized, electric, and merged with the natural ecosystem, like the projects by Studio Stefano Boeri [1]. However, there is a growing perception that this could be a big misunderstanding.

For example, in 2019 OVO Energy has calculated the carbon footprint of emails and asserted that in the United Kingdom “if every email user in the country were to send one less unnecessary email per day, that would reduce carbon emissions by 16,433 tonnes,” [2] and then gave a metaphor to “contain the messy reality of infrastructure” [3]: 81,152 flights from London to Madrid.

The unexpectedness of these data makes this question is then immediate: are we in front of a case of greenwashing operated by the media industry? Formerly known as “eco-pornography” thanks to former advertising executive Jerry Mander, “greenwashing” is a concept born in 1986 by biologist and environmental activist Jay Westerveld, but with still no univocal definition. Riccardo Torelli, Federica Balluchi, and Arianna Lazzini then agree to trace the vague borders of this practice calling it “a misleading communication practice concerning environmental issues.” [4]

According to Greenpeace reports examining the energy consumption of data centers and cloud infrastructures, “if the cloud were a country, it would have the fifth-largest electricity demand in the world,” mostly used for keeping “servers idling and ready in case of a surge in activity” [5]. And at the same time, various companies like Google, Facebook, or Apple send messages about their effort in the construction of more energy-efficient structures and green energy plants that partially cover the enormous energy demand.

However, while looking at this oxymoron, the wisest question is then to ask: can these companies do otherwise? What is the budget percentage spent by GAFAM in researching less consuming infrastructures? And by our governments? If we are judgemental about Google building hydroelectric plants, how should we behave with those who are not even doing this?
And provoking finally: can we accept to have a more mediocre cloud service for a greener planet?


Notes:

[1] Stefano Boeri, Tirana Riverside, Tirana, Albania (2020)

[2] Martin Armstrong, The Carbon Footprint of ‘Thank you’ Emails, Statista (2019) https://www.statista.com/chart/20189/the-carbon-footprint-of-thank-you-emails/#:~:text=The%20sending%20of%20one%20email,at%20on%20a%20national%20scale.

[3] Star and Lampland, Standards and Their Stories, 11.

[4] Riccardo Torelli, Federica Balluchi and Arianna Lazzini, Greenwashing and Environmental Communication: Effects on Stakeholders’ Perceptions, from Richard Welford, Business Strategy and the Environment (2020) https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/bse.2373

[5] Jennifer Holt and Patrick VonDerau, Where the Internet Lives: Data Centers as Cloud Infrastructure, from Lisa Parks and Nicole Starosielski, Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures, University of Illinois Press (2015)

Fe Simeoni

fesimeoni.it Ig

The Kitsch of Wi-fi Culture

Neatness
One of the principles of the aesthetics of contemporary houses and offices is the hiding of wires. We cannot stand the sight of such technical ugliness: an unpleasant black spot in the plastic clear neatness. [1] The inhabitants of these houses or the workers of these offices live surrounded by all the objects they need in order to survive in nowadays society. Since they manage to do anything through well-designed interfaces put on stylish plastic covers, they never have to think about cables, magnetic fields, chips, and pipelines. And for this very reason, technicalities are carelessly perceived as unessential and can be out of sight. After all, using Mies van der Rohe’s words, “less is more”.

Kitsch
However, the hiding of the media infrastructure that pervades our environments is a false and short-sighted liberation. Quoting from Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, “kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and figurative sense of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.” [2] Indeed, there will be always a moment when those magical objects stop working and need some maintenance or repairing. As Bruno Latour argues, we become aware of the information infrastructure when the device does not function and we are forced to tear that veil of Maya, facing the materiality of the problem. [3]

Aqueducts
If we give a quick glance through history, the refusal of the aesthetics of infrastructure seems more a recent fact. Roman aqueducts are considered beautiful, but nobody will be happy to live nearby a water tower or a trellis. Houses and villages were built along the streets and at the trivia, but nowadays few people would like to have a room with a view on a motorway, a railway or an airport. Watermills and windmills make us dream of idyllic landscapes; power plants devalue the prices of houses of the neighborhood. Print houses and newsies were at the very core of Renaissance cities; whereas data centers and antennas are located aside.

– Roman aqueduct, Segovia, Spain

Pompidou
If mainstream architecture and design can be considered kitsch in Kundera’s terms, it must be said that not all the professionals of these fields behave in the same way. Indeed, there are many examples of deliberately exhibited technicalities in architecture, such as Centre Pompidou by Renzo Piano [4] (defined as a “love at second sight” by the National Geographic) or the Tōkyō Tower by Tachū Naitō [5]. Aren’t those examples of infrastructural honesty, provoking all the non-engineers that the materiality of information is not complicated, but complex and fascinating? Aren’t they revealing us that this is what our society is made of and that we should understand?

– Centre Pompidou, Paris, France

– Tōkyō Tower, Tōkyō, Japan

Zen
The novel by US philosopher Robert Maynard Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is about that. Differently from a Romantic approach, Illuministic beauty lays on the rational comprehension of and unmediated astonishment for the relations between parts of a multiplicity. Through knowledge, the observer can appreciate the object on a more profound level, whereas “romantic” people are condemned to a life of incomprehension and irritation. [6]

Fetish
Indeed, the average human is illiterate about the materiality of media infrastructure: he prefers to ignore such irrelevant details and gets annoyed when he has to deal with this matters. In his “romantic” perspective, the media he interacts with are magical objects that work due to some reasons beyond the possibilities of his comprehension. He feels much more secure in the plastic-covered illusion that there is nothing more to understand but the interface on the surface.

We do not want to see cables and wires because we do not want to see our ignorance.

Notes

[1] Lisa Parks and Nicole Starosielski, Introduction, in Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures, University of Illinois Press (2015)

[2] Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 68 Publishers (1984)

[3] Bruno Latour, Where Are the Missing Masses? The Sociology of a Few Mundane Artifacts, in Shaping Technology-Building Society. Studies in Sociotechnical Change, Wiebe Bijker and John Law, MIT Press (1992)

[4] Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers and Gianfranco Franchini, Centre Pompidou, Paris, France (1977)

[5] Tachū Naitō, Tōkyō Tower, Tōkyō, Japan (1958)

[6] Robert Maynard Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, William Morrow and Company (1974)

Fe Simeoni

fesimeoni.it Ig

The Medium (Infrastructure) is the Message

Infrastructures have been in multiple forms even before the term was ever used, and that the concept itself has ever since became super broad – coming from printing to highways- but for this matter, it is important to mention that now more than ever many present themselves as being “discursive” base constructions but in reality, they are quite physical and rely on the poor awareness of its physicality and its implications to keep as they are.

It is also important to note that infrastructures come with capacities of distorting political realms and therefore affecting physical borders, people’s realities and navigation, and capability to be part of their society, we can think of the first postal service in Rome up to the delimitation of data usage in some countries. Not only the presence of these infrastructures in our daily life and their underparts, such as daily life devices, model our accessibility, communication reach, but our possibilities of motion and displacement around certain areas. Also being users of these devices, and therefore infrastructures, we become essential pieces of their functionality.

In the case of daily devices, such as smartphones, which are power-tools that have the illusion of progress and freedom but come with a certain non-monetary cost attached, when we become dependant on them we first agree to conditions we aren’t even aware of, and are tie to policies we are not familiar with. We delegate more and more mundane also primal tasks and become dependant on many functions, we can not rely on our own without them and also need the extension functions they provide, like the capacity of being simultaneously at more than one place or having access to information otherwise inaccessible, therefore we are vicious consumers of data, apps, more devices, most likely always persecuting the latest models for better and efficient results.

The real cost behind this is not only individual and doesn’t rely only upon the terms of agreement we as users sign on every service we decide to acquire, the real cost, unfortunately, relies on the physicality of these discursive based infrastructures that depend on land, natural resource, energy and by incrementing the consumption the political power increments and the mediums and ways are not necessarily the most conscious but most likely always the most profitable and by not being mindful consumers or users of these infrastructures, which are definitely hard to avoid and almost unrealistic to imagine ourselves out of them, we contribute to this power chain.

Francesca Bogani Amadori

INFRAGRAPHY Vol. IV. Fall 2020 [Published]

Infragraphy is a compilation of critical student artworks and short essays dealing with the materialities of media technologies and their environmental implications. The volume presents artworks and texts from the course ‘Media and the Environment’ in the Fall of 2020 at the Department of Media, Aalto University. The course is a series of scholarly readings about and around the themes of media including media’s relations and impacts on the so-called Anthropocene, thermocultures of media, ecologies of fabrication, media and plastics, Internet of Things, Planned Obsolescence, e-waste, and media’s energetic landscapes. A key approach of the course is to introduce artistic methods and practices that could address emerging media materialities. The student artistic outputs are presented in a final exhibition.

Download PDF:http://blogs.aalto.fi/mediainfrastructures/files/2020/12/Infragraphy_Fall2020.pdf

This fourth volume of Infragraphy compiles a series of artworks and companion essays as a response to the contemporary discourse of political economy of media and related environmental implications. The volume begins with Lassi Häkkinen’s Screen of Death that plunges us through the computer interface and web browser to a distant cobalt mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo. His accompanying essay meditates on the disjunction between the digital, mining and labor, as a way to reflect on extractive practices. Phuong Nguyen’s De-Terraforming Impacts of Humans on Earth takes us on a virtual tour of damaged landscapes as a result of the digital starting from the environs of Silicon Valley, Bayan Obo mining district in China, to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Cloud Materialities by Qianyu (Sienna) Fang sets up a game-like low-tech alternative computer interface to examine critical themes related to the various materialities of digital media. Oskar Koli’s provocative kinetic sculpture installation makes us ponder on deep time, automation, and fossil fuels. The installation sets up the recursive stroke of a programmed and automated feather that brushes off grains from a piece of coal. Koli insists on calling it ‘Untitled’ since the viewer could very well have a multitude of interpretations.

Addressing environmental damage, Anze Bratus uses pollution datasets along with urban images from around the world to create generative soundscapes. His installation Acoustics of Pollution highlights how pollution levels as a result of a legacy of industrial activities and fossil fuels exponentially increase and damage the environment. Studies on Invisibilityby Tuula Vehanen examines urban radiation, especially with regard to 5G networks in Helsinki. Vehanen’s photography attempts to render radio frequency visible and provokes us to consider the impacts of exposure to humans and ecosystems. By poetry and painting, Dominik Fleischmann’s Restless Bodies reflects on technology and purity. His work makes us think of where technological necessity of perfection and extraction might eventually lead us. Finally, Mirya Nezvitskaya presents a performance installation Collecting Your Waste that combines her research in materiality, posthumanist philosophy, performance and artistic practice. Her work challenges us on many levels by threading together colonization, extraction, plastic waste and performance.

Samir Bhowmik
9 December 2020
Helsinki

Virtual Exhibition: https://www.aalto.fi/en/news/the-anthrobscene-media-and-the-environment-course-exhibition

Infragraphy Volume III – Spring 2020

Graphic Design: Ameya Chikramane

DOWNLOAD PDF: http://blogs.aalto.fi/mediainfrastructures/files/2020/05/Infragraphies_vol3_web.pdf

CONTRIBUTORS: Ameya Chikramane, Boeun Kim, Lassi Häkkinen, Samir Bhowmik and Shambhavi Singh

INTRODUCTION
The world moved online in 2020. The global spread of the coronavirus COVID-19 with the resulting quarantine and lockdowns forced a significant portion of humanity to accept a virtual life. Global Internet traffic soared to over 30 percent in March and online transactions to over 42 percent in April [1]. The internet has done well during the coronavirus pandemic. Its infrastructure has held up. It allowed a transition to remote work, learning, socializing and entertainment. Netflix, the video streaming service added more than 16 million new subscribers [2], and online shopping giant Amazon hired 100000 workers in March, and reported massive earnings [3]. In between streaming and online shopping, the perfect combination of the so-called late capitalism, one thing remains unconsidered. At what cost? What is the impact of such rampant connectivity and consumerism to our society, to our environment? It is a big mistake to think we will be saving the environment by lockdowns, when all we have been doing for the past few months is streaming and shopping. Connectivity is material and resource-based, supported by a global infrastructure of data centers, power plants and submarine cables. The internet consumes energy. A whole lot of it. Global data centers recently consumed around 205 billion kWh [4]. As the massive pressure on the ‘Cloud’ intensifies and energy use goes through the roof, we need to again re-consider how we design and implement such infrastructure, or change how we live.

This third volume of Infragraphy is short but rich in its range and contents addressing internet  infrastructures. Boeun Kim’s ‘The Paradox of Online Society’ attempts to unbox the hidden cost behind the digital transition by discussing how the quarantine affects the socially disadvantaged, the energy cost and air pollution, and the silver lining during the pandemic. Lassi Häkkinen’s ‘Vulnerability of Technology and Data in the Physical World’ looks at physical world vulnerabilities of our information and data, and the impossibility to separate infrastructural materialities from the the digital. By illustration, Shambhavi Singh examines the ‘Infrastructures of Isolation’, and finally, Ameya Chikramane explores new approaches to the post-digital. All these critical student texts and artworks deal with the materialities of media technologies and their societal and environmental implications, as outcomes of the course ‘Archaeology of Media Infrastructures’ in the Spring of 2020 at the Department of Media, Aalto University. 

Samir Bhowmik
25 May 2020, Helsinki

1 Yevgeniy Sverdlik, Will the Coronavirus Break the Internet? Datacenter Knowledge, 13 March 2020 <https://www.datacenterknowledge.com/uptime/will-coronavirus-break-internet-highly-unlikely-says-cloudflare>

2 Trefis Team, Netflix Subscriber Growth 2x Expectations; Good News Or Peak? Forbes, 28 April, 2020 <https://www.forbes.com/sites/greatspeculations/2020/04/28/netflix-subscriber-growth-2x-expectations-good-news-or-peak/#5d046ad53ea1>

3 Alina Seyukh, Amazon To Hire 100,000 Workers To Meet ‘Surge In Demand’, NPR, 16 March 2020 <https://www.npr.org/2020/03/16/816704442/amazon-to-hire-100-000-workers-to-meet-surge-in-demand?t=1590396613400>

4 How Much Energy Do Data Centers Really Use? Energy & Innovation, 17 March 2020 <https://energyinnovation.org/2020/03/17/how-much-energy-do-data-centers-really-use/>

Clouds or Grids?

The Internet Cloud seems like a palatable, abstract concept that somehow holds data, or bits, much like how real clouds hold molecules of water. The clouds then precipitate data to our devices, pretty much the same way that real clouds precipitate rain.

In the early 1990s, Ian Foster and Carl Kesselman came up with a new concept of “The Grid”. The analogy used was of the electricity grid where users could plug into the grid and use a metered utility service. If companies don’t have their own power stations, but rather access a third party electricity supply, why can’t the same apply to computing resources? Plug into a grid of computers and pay for what you use.

One of the first milestones for cloud computing was the arrival of Salesforce.com in 1999, which pioneered the concept of delivering enterprise applications via a simple website. The services firm paved a way for both specialist and mainstream software firms to deliver applications over the internet.

The next development was Amazon Web Services in 2002, which provided a suite of cloud-based services including storage, computation and even human intelligence through the Amazon Mechanical Turk.

According to Rebecca J. Rosen’s article Clouds: The Most Useful Metaphor of All Time?” . . . when engineers would map out all the various components of their networks, but then loosely sketch the unknown networks (like the Internet) theirs was hooked into. What does a rough blob of undefined nodes look like? A cloud. And, helpfully, clouds are something that takes little skill to draw. It’s a squiggly line formed into a rough ellipse. Over time, clouds were adopted as the stand-in image for the part of a computer or telephone network outside one’s own.”

Clouds get traction as a metaphor because they are shape-shifters, literally. As a result, they can stand in for many varied cultural tropes. Want something to represent the one thing marring your otherwise perfect situation? Done. Want to evoke the nostalgic feeling of childhood games of the imagination? Done. Maybe you want to draw a picture of heaven? You’re in luck. Clouds as metaphors pepper our language: every cloud has a silver lining, I’m on cloud nine, his head is in the clouds, there are dark clouds on the horizon. Clouds are the lazy man’s metaphor, a one-image-fits-all solution for your metaphor needs.

So there is a shift, not only in terminology but also in perception. The problem with using the word “Cloud” is that it is perceived as a harmless, abstract repository that effectively hides massive physical infrastructures and the associated thermo-cultures, energy expenses, and waste management practices. The materiality and physicality of cloud systems are manifested in the form of data centers that eat up to 200 terawatt-hours (TWh) each year. Further aggravating this trend is the fact that these data centers actually utilize only 6-12% of the total power consumption, the rest being reserved for traffic surges, crashes and redundancy ie. to make services faster, reduce errors and improve consistency.

Considering these points, one has to wonder what would today’s energy and data consumption scenario looks like if we had stuck to the term ‘Grid’ to denote modern data storage and distribution.

Ameya Chikramane, 4.3.2020

Archaeology of Media Infrastructures – Spring 2020

Course Summary: The course provides a framework of archaeological exploration of media infrastructures. It allows students to think beyond a single media device and design for broader media ecologies. Tracing the emergence of contemporary media infrastructures from early instances in human and media history, it examines both hard infrastructure (architecture, mechanical and computing systems) and soft infrastructure (software, APIs and operating systems). What are the breaks, the discontinuities and ruptures in media-infrastructural history? What has been remediated, in what form, in what characteristics? The course prepares students for the follow-up course: ‘Media and the Environment’ in Fall 2020.

Wednesdays 13.15 – 15.00 / Starting 5.2.2020 / until 1.4.2020

The course is filed under Media Art and Culture / https://into.aalto.fi/display/enmlab/2020-2022+Advanced+studies

Register: weboodi.aalto.fi  

Infragraphy Volume 2, Fall 2019

INFRAGRAPHY Volume 2. is a compilation of critical student artworks and short essays dealing with the materialities of media technologies and their environmental implications.

These works and texts are the outcomes from the course ‘Media and the Environment’ in the Fall of 2019 at the Department of Media, Aalto University. The course was a series of scholarly readings about and around the themes of media including media’s relations and impacts on the so-called Anthropocene, thermocultures of media, ecologies of fabrication, media and plastics, Internet of Things, Planned Obsolescence, e-waste, and media’s energetic landscapes. A key approach of the course was also introducing artistic methods and practices that could address emerging media materialities. The final exhibition of the course was a collection of student artworks as a response to the contemporary discourse of political economy of media and related environmental implications.

DOWNLOAD PDF: http://blogs.aalto.fi/mediainfrastructures/files/2020/01/Infragraphy_Fall2019_WEB.pdf

Infragraphy Volume 1, Spring 2019

This first volume of Infragraphy is a compilation of critical student writings and photo essays about media, infrastructure and the environment. These texts are outcomes from the “Archaeology of Media Infrastructures” Master of Arts course in the Spring of 2019 at the Department of Media, Aalto University Finland. The course examined media infrastructures including the concept of deep time, the materialities of the Internet, Artificial Intelligence, digital labor, water, energy, and critical infrastructure.

Download PDF: Infragraphy_Vol1_Spring2019

Dirty mining and clean data – a story about Swedish industry

I remember very well when in 2013, Facebook opened its first data center outside of the US in Luleå, a northern city in Sweden. It was in all the big news channels. One of the largest and most impactful social media corporations chose Sweden!

For Luleå, the deal with Facebook was a great advertisement for the city. One of the world’s most influential corporations chose to put its facilities there. Data as a product has the appearance of modernity, innovation, high-technology, creativity and in this case, green energy. It goes well with the way Sweden as a nation wants to market itself. Most news articles were written in a weirdly proud manner. The primary reason stated by Facebook was the natural cooling of the servers, provided by the cold climate, and the science magazine Forskning och Framsteg wrote an article jokingly named “This is where your likes are cooling down” (1). I remember spontaneously feeling proud as well. We Swedes are raised with a hate/love relationship to the USA. We love to feel better than the Americans, to look down on them for their capitalist, openly class dividing society structure. But we also watch mostly TV series and movies from Hollywood and think that English is much cooler than Swedish. Secrectly, we all want to move to New York, LA or San Francisco and pursue the American dream. We are sold the idea of a service society, where machines do the dirty work and we can sit back and enjoy our touch screens and fancy clothes.

That dream, however, soon fades if one leaves the big cities. Up until a few decades ago, Sweden was an industrial country, with people working in factories, farms, forests and mines. And even though we are pushed to believe that the industrial society died to give birth to the service based society, Sweden’s economy is still based on those old industries. Facebook and other IT companies make a good front page, but the dirtier industries supplying them with material and energy still exist. And this is where Luleå’s history as an industry city becomes interesting.

Luleå has largely flourished because of the iron mines in Malmberget close by, where Luleå has served as the harbour for exportation of iron goods since late 1800s. The municipality now consists of 77000 people and the city hosts one of Sweden’s leading technical universities. In the meantime, the mining town Malmberget is literally collapsing. The mine has created a 200 meter hole in the ground, constantly growing and swallowing buildings and roads. This has caused the city to expand in new directions and buildings are being moved away from the hole’s edges. In the future, Malmberget will not exist in the place where it is today.

The hole in Malmberget municipality, called Gropen in Swedish.

The mine is utilised by state owned corporation LKAB, which also runs the world’s largest underground mine in the inland city Kiruna (see map below). There, the effects of the mining are even bigger. The whole city of Kiruna is now being moved to a new location since the current one is collapsing. Some buildings are moved, but most of the city will be built completely from scratch to house all the mine workers and other citizens. The new city is said to be financially, socially and environmentally sustainable (2).Kiruna’s new city center in the front, with the mine visible in the far left.

Meanwhile, the ecological impact of the mining industry next door is non-reparable. Mining disrupts the landscape and leaves open wounds in the ground. There is always a risk of toxic contamination of fresh water and lakes. The mining industry in Sweden stands for 10% of the CO2 emissions of the country. The indigenous people of the Nordics, the Sami people, have historically and in the present fought against the mining industries since the effects for them can be loss of land, contamination of fresh water and reindeer routes from summer to winter pasture land being cut off (3). Still today, Sweden’s liberal mineral laws permits foreign companies to exploit land without the owner’s permission. The UN have critiqued Swedish governments for not doing enough to protect the indigenous people and their rights to their land (4).

Kiruna at the top and Luleå at the lower right on Google Maps.

Facebook is now planning to double the size of their data center in Luleå, making it 100,000 sqm. The center is purely driven on water energy, according to Facebook. It directly or indirectly gives full time work for 400 people per year, compared to LKAB who employs around 4000 people in Sweden, with a majority working in the northernmost regions, and indirectly provides work for thousands more through related industries. Sweden’s iron mines jointly produces 90% of the iron in Europe.

Some journalists raised the concern that data centers wouldn’t be able to replace the traditional industries, such as mining and forestry, when it comes to employing large numbers of people. Others have claimed that Facebook is just the first of many data companies that will open centers in northern Sweden, thus leading the way for more work opportunities in the future. But how many jobs can this sector actually produce, and especially in relation to its high energy consumption? Will it be possible for all those data centers to run on water energy? Probably not.

As stated previously on the blog, new media infrastructures are often built on top of existing infrastructures. The data center is no exception. In 1910-1915, a large power plant was built in Lule älv, a river ending in Luleå, to be able to replace some of the coal imported from Europe. But the water flow was too high during Spring. Eyes fell on the newly inaugurated national park surrounding Stora sjöfallen, at the time one of Europe’s biggest water falls. The decision was taken from the government to exclude the water fall from the national park so that it could be dammed, with the consequence that the water flow in the river could be controlled like a tap. The Sami people who fished in the area, and who’s reindeer lands would be put under water, were not asked for permission. If the same decision was taken today, it would lead to massive demonstrations from the public (5). I have been at Stora sjöfallet myself. It is a large silent lake with a small flow of water coming down the water fall.

Surely it isn’t Facebook’s fault that those precious nature resources were destroyed a hundred years ago, and one can argue that the mining industry is necessary for providing the world with minerals. But the societal structure that killed Stora Sjöfallet at the beginning of the century is still working its magic, but now on a global scale. With a promise of work opportunities, multinational corporations are allowed to exploit land and energy resources not just in developing countries, but also in Sweden, whether they are producing minerals or data. Only a tiny portion of the capital produced goes back to the local inhabitants, and even less to the indigenous people. Those mines provide material that is necessary for computers, phones, cables, etc to exist in the first place. So Facebook’s “clean energy footprint” is not so clean after all. But perhaps, if we continue down this path of environmental destruction, the world will look much like the inside of a data center in the end. Lots of blinking machines, but no life.

Facebook’s data center in Luleå, Sweden.

Further readings in English:

http://samer.se/4623

https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2018/dec/02/kiruna-swedish-arctic-town-had-to-move-reindeer-herders-in-the-way

Sources (in Swedish):

https://fof.se/tidning/2017/1/artikel/har-svalnar-dina-likes

https://hallbartbyggande.com/det-nya-kiruna-en-hallbar-modellstad-tar-form/)

https://www.naturskyddsforeningen.se/nyheter/gruvindustrins-gruvligaste-effekter

https://sverigesradio.se/sida/artikel.aspx?programid=2054&artikel=4289211)

http://ottossonochottosson.se/blog/reportage/historien-om-ett-vattenfall/

https://www.lkab.com/sv/SysSiteAssets/documents/publikationer/broschyrer/det-har-ar-lkab.pdf

Google’s cable investments

There was an article recently on New York Times covering Google’s undersea projects. They have a nice map of the history of undersea cables and which of them Facebook, Google, Microsoft or Amazon “partly own, solely own or are a major capacity buyer of a cable owned by another company”.

Map published in New York Times. Graphics by Karl Russell, Troy Griggs and Blacki Migliozzi.

It looks like the share of these major content providers among all internet cables is increasing quite rapidly. And especially Google is taking lead of creating its own cable infrastructure.

There is an interview of Jayne Stowell, who oversees construction of Google’s undersea cable projects. Couple of nice comments:

“People think that data is in the cloud, but it’s not,”
“It’s in the ocean.”

“It really is management of a very complex multidimensional chess board,” said Ms. Stowell of Google, who wears an undersea cable as a necklace.

There is also interviews and pictures of guys working in the cable ship Durable that Google uses for its laying operations.

“I still get seasick,” said Walt Oswald, a technician who has been laying cables on ships for 20 years. He sticks a small patch behind his ear to hold back the nausea. “It’s not for everybody.”

Recommend to read!

Here’s couple more images of what Google is planning from company blog post.