27 September 2011

Peter Sloterdijk, data centers and the spaces of networked, psychedelic capitalism

What was 365 Main's Oakland data center near Jack London Square, now owned by Digital Realty Trust. 2nd St. and Brush St., Oakland in January 2010. (photo by author; map here).

Peter Sloterdijk: In your exploration of the "architectures of foam," you write that modernity renders the issue of residence explicit. What do you mean by that? 

Peter Sloterdijk: Here I am developing an idea that Walter Benjamin addressed in his Arcades Project. He starts from the anthropological assumption that people in all epochs dedicate themselves to creating interiors, and at the same time he seeks to emancipate this motif from its apparent timelessness. He therefore asks the question: How does capitalist man in the 19th century express his need for an interior? The answer is: He uses the most cutting-edge technology in order to orchestrate the most archaic of all needs, the need to immunize existence by constructing protective islands. In the case of the arcade, modern man opts for glass, wrought iron, and assembly of prefabricated parts in order to build the largest possible interior. For this reason, Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace, erected in London in 1851, is the paradigmatic building. It forms the first hyper-interior that offers a perfect expression of the spatial idea of psychedelic capitalism. It is the prototype of all later theme-park interiors and event architectures. The arcade heralds the abolition of the outside world. It abolishes outdoor markets and brings them indoors, into a closed sphere. The antagonistic spatial types of salon and market meld here to form a hybrid. This is what Benjamin found so theoretically exciting: The 19th-century citizen seeks to expand his living room into a cosmos and at the same time to impress the dogmatic form of a room on the universe. This sparks a trend that is perfected in the 20th-century apartment design as well as in shopping-mall and sports-stadium design-there are the three paradigms of modern construction, that is, the construction of micro-interiors and macro-interiors. (p. 128)*


Sloterdijk identifies the place in the middle of the 18th-century where capitalist society embedded itself even more into the urban fabric. This "psychedelic capitalism" identified itself through an exhibition space that would twist and morph into the generic, everyday shopping mall--before that mall became so bland to be unseen and thus naturalized in the landscape as the place where shopping happens, the type of building had to be created.

If the Crystal Palace transformed society, as a space that moved social and economic relations inside, is there a subsequent contemporary example that has equally transformed our networked society? Is it still the shopping mall, or could it be a data center? Data centers house the Net, hosting websites, storing email, and the like. They do not provide interior spaces for individuals to shop or socialize, but they do organize and produce the flows of information around which society, to a large extent these days, functions. The shopping mall now competes with online retailers, the salon where people would gather to socialize now competes-and has probably lost-to online social media such as Facebook. But the design of the data center is in no way celebrated and is rarely even acknowledged in the urban landscape in the way Sloterdijk talks of the Crystal Palace. As is evident in the picture above of a data center near downtown Oakland, the design seems intended to reinforce the secure, citadel-like, veiled anonymity of the building and, consequently, the activities that go on inside. There is little in the way of hyper-interiors in a data center. The interior space they produce is located on the computer's monitor or the smartphone's touchscreen, accessible only to the individual holding the device. The space itself fades into the urban background, visible only when you are looking for it.

The utility of urban space to declare the motives and intentions of "psychedelic capitalism" in its current incarnation still exists, just look at any spectacular skyscraper development, but perhaps the organizational space for our society today is embodied in the largely anonymous data centers that are scattered about the landscape, providing the data for our ubiquitous connectivity, but, spatially at least, fading into the metropolitan background we move through daily.

*from an interview with Peter Sloterdijk at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, 17 February, 2009, where Sloterdijk asked himself the questions. Transcribed in Harvard Design Magazine 30, Spring/Summer 2009. 

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