|One Wilshire in downtown Los Angeles, one of the most important data centers in the world. The potential of data to reshape design requires the infrastructural landscape produced in and through spaces like this. Photo by Alan Wiig, June 2014.|
Harvard University's Graduate School of Design is hosting an international, interdisciplinary conference next Friday, "Data Across Scales: Reshaping Design". I'll be speaking in the 7pm session about the geography of data and the impact of data centers and colocation points, examining the storage, maintenance, and transmission of data as an urban concern. Details on my presentation follow.
The disposition of data to transform social exchange is predicated on pervasive connection to global telecommunication networks, where the ‘high design’ of digital, mobile technologies like an Apple iPhone function through mundane, distributed, operational landscapes that transfer information across distance while also affecting proximate space in consequential ways. Understanding the impact of data on the planetary, networked urban condition necessitates conceptualizing the relationship between data infrastructures and the fabric of the city.
The relationship between data to space extends beyond the sensors, services, and mobile devices that transfigure information into data. Pervasive connectivity and ubiquitous computing are central, common elements of contemporary urban life. Data centers act as objects of translation between individuals and the city. While data is largely immaterial except in the action it enables, the storage, maintenance, and transmission of data require many layers of interfacing telecommunication infrastructure that function across scales but are always, inherently embedded in particular places. Data centers, as a central element in the dispersal of data-based decision-making, operate within a variety of spatial contexts. Data centers connect individual users but are typically separated from their proximate neighborhood, embodying the juxtaposition between highly designed connective objects in the form of smartphones and other mobile computing devices, and the quotidian landscape of United States urbanism. I argue that understanding the impact of data on the planetary, networked urban condition necessitates conceptualizing the relationship between data infrastructures and the fabric of the city.
Information technologies and the data they function through have absolutely impacted urban life, yet the disposition of data to transform social exchange is predicated on infrastructural relationships with their own place in the built environment. The ‘high design’ of digital, mobile technologies like an Apple iPhone function through mundane, distributed operational landscapes that transform distance while also affecting proximate space in consequential ways. Visualizing data as a material construct is a means of considering the spatial effects of data.
This presentation investigates the spatial consequences of data through the data centers, fiber-optic cables, and cellular antenna sites enabling mobile, ubiquitous connectivity. These embedded systems form an elemental part of data-driven urban exchange, even as they often remain relatively invisible. Comparative examples of data centers, submarine and terrestrial fiber-optic cabling, and related digital infrastructure will be shown, drawn from fieldwork in California and the North East US over the last five years. A case study of the public face of data centers in Philadelphia will also examine the Philadelphia Navy Yard, a ‘smart city’, globalized free zone highly integrated into data networks across scales, as well as touching on the relationship of data centers and data in general to energy and electrical infrastructure. The centrality of data to our experience of the physical world, to debates over open governance and civic exchange, must also engage with the aesthetic of and politics of data centers themselves.