8-2 Table of Con­tents | http://​dx​.doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​7​7​4​2​/​I​M​A​G​E​.​L​D​.​8​.​2.1 | John­son­Hogan­PDF

Alix John­son | UCSC

Mél Hogan | Uni­ver­si­ty of Calgary

Introducing Location and Dislocation: Global Geographies of Digital Data

The con­tri­bu­tions to this issue of Imag­i­na­tions address the rela­tion­ship between dig­i­tal data and phys­i­cal place. How is the econ­o­my of data stor­age orga­nized in and across com­mu­ni­ties, regions, nations, and states? How does the indus­try reprise old rela­tion­ships and forge new ones? How are bound­aries and bor­ders inscribed and encoun­tered by users and cre­ators along the way? How is infor­ma­tion tech­nol­o­gy (IT) infra­struc­ture built into envi­ron­ments, shift­ing social and nat­ur­al ter­rain? By fore­ground­ing spa­tial rela­tions and infra­struc­tures, these essays draw con­nec­tions between glob­al­ized geo­gra­phies of media dis­tri­b­u­tion and local­ized impacts of IT on the ground.

Emplacing Data

The arti­cles con­vened here join a grow­ing con­ver­sa­tion on the mate­ri­al­i­ty of the inter­net. In recent years, schol­ars, artists, and activists have tak­en apart the once preva­lent notion of an imme­di­ate and imma­te­r­i­al glob­al net­work, chal­leng­ing the ephemer­al­i­ty evoked by lan­guage such as “the cloud.” By treat­ing the inter­net as an infra­struc­ture, they have demon­strat­ed its con­struc­tion costs and envi­ron­men­tal impacts; its affor­dances and lim­i­ta­tions as a polit­i­cal tool; and the ways that race, gen­der, and oth­er modes of embod­i­ment remain as salient as ever, even online. These inter­ven­tions have shift­ed our under­stand­ing of dig­i­tal net­works from an evoca­tive but undif­fer­en­ti­at­ed “cyber­space” to an uneven “glob­al assem­blage of dig­i­tal flow” (Gra­ham 78). The authors in this issue push this con­ver­sa­tion for­ward in their spe­cif­ic and sus­tained atten­tion to place. In doing so, they illus­trate the neces­si­ty and poten­tial of explor­ing the sites where our data is pro­duced, trans­mit­ted, stored, parsed, and put to use.

In Yi-Fu Tuan’s clas­sic for­mu­la­tion, place is space made mean­ing­ful (1977). Such mean­ing is inscribed through prac­tices and prod­ucts that con­cretize col­lec­tive mem­o­ry and orga­nize spa­tial rela­tions: stat­ues, street names, and sci­en­tif­ic clas­si­fi­ca­tions that cod­i­fy ter­ri­to­r­i­al bounds. The con­tri­bu­tions in this col­lec­tion read IT infra­struc­tures through such a frame­work, con­sid­er­ing how objects such as data cen­tres and fibre-optic cables and prac­tices such as sur­veil­lance and loca­tion tag­ging cre­ate con­se­quen­tial sens­es of place. Since Tuan, how­ev­er, schol­ars have cri­tiqued the lim­it­ed role that place has been assigned: defined by mean­ing inscribed upon it, place looks pas­sive, sta­t­ic, bound. Instead, the­o­rists have drawn anoth­er pic­ture of places as rela­tion­al con­fig­u­ra­tions, always-already entwined in broad­er webs of pow­er (Massey). Fun­da­men­tal­ly social, place is also polit­i­cal­ly active. Far from oppo­sites, the local and the glob­al are inter­twined (Brown). In this vein, the authors here also attend to the ways that place comes to shape data infra­struc­tures. From local ide­olo­gies of con­nec­tiv­i­ty to mar­ketable images of nature, from spe­cif­ic con­di­tions of wind and water to the inher­it­ed struc­tures of past indus­tries, the par­tic­u­lar­i­ties of place are worked into IT—sometimes, as this issue illus­trates, to unex­pect­ed and unruly effect.

The Visible, the Visual

The ques­tion of vis­i­bil­i­ty has long been part of the con­ver­sa­tion about dig­i­tal data, often imag­ined as either invis­i­ble (see Parks; Starosiel­s­ki) or hyper­vis­i­ble (see Holt and Von­der­au). The risk when data is invis­i­ble is of a fail­ure of col­lec­tive cit­i­zen engage­ment in deci­sion-mak­ing regard­ing the con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion, mean­ing, emplace­ment, man­age­ment, and main­te­nance of these infra­struc­tures. Sim­i­lar­ly, hyper­vis­i­bil­i­ty, such as the high-gloss cura­tion and self-rep­re­sen­ta­tion of data cen­tres online (Google, Face­book, Apple, etc.) rein­forces the imag­i­nary of a clean, con­trolled, and secure data infra­struc­ture; peo­ple need nei­ther phys­i­cal access nor deep under­stand­ing of their poli­cies and impacts. The pieces in this vol­ume ques­tion this bina­ry by re-embed­ding the visu­al aspects of dig­i­tal infra­struc­ture in their social, polit­i­cal, and envi­ron­men­tal con­text. In keep­ing with the con­cept of Imag­i­na­tions: Jour­nal of Cross-Cul­tur­al Image Stud­ies, the fol­low­ing arti­cles open up the ques­tion of visu­al­i­ty, in both their con­tent and their form.

Asta Von­der­au, in “Tech­nolo­gies of Imag­i­na­tion: Locat­ing the Cloud in Sweden’s North,” offers an ethno­graph­ic explo­ration of Facebook’s first Euro­pean data cen­ter in Luleå. Her con­tri­bu­tion shows how the Node Pole project picks up on long­stand­ing tropes of Swedish char­ac­ter while promis­ing specif­i­cal­ly region­al empow­er­ment in the form of a “post-extrac­tive moder­ni­ty.” Yet such devel­op­ments, Von­der­au argues, are enabled by the indus­try giant’s infa­mous secre­cy: strict­ly lim­it­ed infor­ma­tion about this effort height­ens its imag­i­na­tive poten­tial while obscur­ing less wel­come envi­ron­men­tal effects.

Like Von­der­au, Gra­ham Pick­ren charts future-mak­ing efforts in “The Fac­to­ries of the Past are Turn­ing Into the Data Cen­tres of the Future.” Exam­in­ing the con­ver­sion of Chicago’s indus­tri­al-build­ing stock into serv­er farms, he traces the shape of mate­r­i­al infra­struc­ture as “a bridge that con­nects our dig­i­tal present to our indus­tri­al past.” In doing so, Pick­ren maps con­ti­nu­ities and trans­for­ma­tions in uneven urban cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment. While the decline of man­u­fac­tur­ing in Chica­go has cre­at­ed the con­di­tions for data stor­age to take its place, this new indus­try offers quite dif­fer­ent con­fig­u­ra­tions of invest­ment and com­mu­ni­ty impact. If data cen­tres are the so-called “fac­to­ries of the 21st cen­tu­ry,” Pick­ren asks, “whith­er the work­ing class?”

While Von­der­au and Pick­ren demon­strate the polit­i­cal and ana­lyt­ic poten­tial of “vis­i­bi­liz­ing” data infra­struc­ture, Kris­ten Veel and Alexan­der Taylor’s con­tri­bu­tions com­pli­cate that imper­a­tive in their atten­tion to data cen­tre space. Veel’s “Uncer­tain Archi­tec­tures: Per­form­ing Shel­ter and Vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty” crit­i­cal­ly reads the design plans of two data cen­ters: the under­ground bunker, Pio­nen, and the promi­nent mod­u­lar sky­scraper, Data Tow­er. Her visu­al analy­sis con­trasts two modes of relat­ing to data: “enclo­sure and con­tain­ment” on the one hand and “flex­i­bil­i­ty, flow, and mod­u­la­tion” on the oth­er. Ulti­mate­ly, Veel shows that these designs are per­for­ma­tive, more rep­re­sen­ta­tive of what we imag­ine about data than what it is. Tay­lor, too, takes up data cen­tre archi­tec­ture in “The Tech­noaes­thet­ics of Data Cen­tre ‘White Space’.” Cri­tiquing the pol­i­tics of expo­sure that char­ac­ter­ize many pop­u­lar and aca­d­e­m­ic accounts, Tay­lor uses the “white space” of the data cen­tre as a heuris­tic to explore the unre­solved inter­play between trans­paren­cy and opac­i­ty in indus­try design. White­ness some­times illu­mi­nates, some­times projects, and some­times reflects back in dynam­ics more com­pli­cat­ed than mere con­ceal­ment. Mak­ing vis­i­ble, he argues, is not the same as mak­ing known.

Evan Light, Jut­ta Lauth Bacas, Jeff Deutch, Daphne Drag­o­na, Katrin M. Kämpf, Mar­ta Peira­no Valenti­na Pel­lizzer, Christi­na Rogers, Flo­ri­an Sprenger, Jaron Rowan, and Abi­ol Lual Deng push the ques­tion of see­ing and know­ing in their Sto­ry Map of data flows across bor­ders in the route from cen­tral Africa to North­ern Europe. “Infra­struc­tures of Dis/Connection: Of Drones, Migra­tion, and Dig­i­tal Care” ana­lyzes migra­tion as a process of con­nec­tion and dis­con­nec­tion, in which access to com­mu­ni­ca­tion infra­struc­tures also expos­es migrants to the threat of state sur­veil­lance. The move­ment of data, then, both facil­i­tates and impedes the move­ment of peo­ple (many of whom are dis­placed by drone war­fare, itself linked to some of the same infra­struc­tures). Michael Audette-Lon­go takes up anoth­er mode of mobil­i­ty in “Hear the World’s Sounds: Local­i­ty as Meta­da­ta in Two Music Plat­forms.” Track­ing the fea­ture of loca­tion tag­ging across the appli­ca­tions Band­camp and Sound­cloud, Audette-Lon­go shows how region­al meta-data works to cre­ate a “sense of place” for con­sumers in a new media econ­o­my. While tag­ging orga­nizes a par­tic­u­lar expe­ri­ence of con­nec­tion, he argues that it is nat­u­ral­ized as the fea­ture blends into each application’s interface.

The final essay in this vol­ume, “Drones Caught in the Net,” offers an exper­i­men­tal explo­ration of infor­ma­tion infra­struc­tures from the per­spec­tive of the unmanned drone. Adam Fish, Bradley Gar­rett, and Oliv­er Case doc­u­ment their map­ping of fibre-optic cables, land­ing sta­tions, and data cen­tres in the North Atlantic. They argue that the poten­tial of drone imagery inheres not in some fresh per­spec­tive made pos­si­ble by new tech­nol­o­gy, but in the “rel­a­tive par­al­lelism” at play between their aer­i­al infor­ma­tion infra­struc­tures and those on land and under­ground. They con­clude with a call to media the­o­rists to “fold our­selves back into the stratig­ra­phy of place.”

As part of the Elic­i­ta­tions com­po­nent of our issue, Rafi­co Ruiz remem­bers Alber­to Behar, a robot­ics engi­neer and polar researcher who was instru­men­tal in gen­er­at­ing ear­ly evi­dence of cli­mate change. Ruiz explores Behar’s work posthu­mous­ly through his archive of read­ings and images. Anto­nia Hernán­dez offers anoth­er visu­al explo­ration of net­works in the con­text of domes­tic space. Through a series of art exper­i­ments called The Moldy Strat­e­gy, Hernán­dez invites the view­er to nav­i­gate mold, expos­ing micro­scop­ic entan­gle­ments of bod­ies and media.

As Shan­non Mat­tern not­ed in her cogent essay, “Cloud and Field,” it has recent­ly become a pop­u­lar pas­time to map the new infra­struc­tures of our dig­i­tal age (2016). Field trips and field guides now chart the nodes and net­works that make up “the cloud,” often repro­duc­ing a colo­nial ethos of explo­ration and faith in the mak­ing of ency­clo­pe­dic knowledge—faith that mak­ing vis­i­ble is mak­ing clear. With this issue of Imag­i­na­tions, we aim to do some­thing dif­fer­ent. By stag­ing a con­ver­sa­tion about place and data through a wide vari­ety of engage­ments with both, we offer a range of exper­i­ments and explo­rations that tack­le rather than take for grant­ed the ques­tion of the visu­al; mod­el the poten­tial of local per­spec­tive on glob­al net­works; and empha­size points of encounter and engage­ment between the cloud and the ground.

We would like to thank the authors and prac­ti­tion­ers who have con­tributed to this issue, whose works mark an impor­tant moment of inter­dis­ci­pli­nary schol­ar­ly inter­ests and inter­ven­tions. Thank you also to the peer review­ers for their invalu­able intel­lec­tu­al labour in this process. Final­ly, we would like to thank the staff at Imag­i­na­tions for help­ing us put the issue togeth­er: Sheena Wil­son (Edi­tor-in-Chief), Brent Bel­lamy (Man­ag­ing Edi­tor), Tara Mil­brandt (Elic­i­ta­tions Reviews Edi­tor), Shama Rang­wala (Copy Edi­tor) and Ève Robidoux-Descary and Aurélie Lesueur (Trans­la­tors).

We hope you enjoy the issue and look for­ward to your feedback.

Works Cited

Brown, Jacque­line Nassey. Drop­ping Anchor, Set­ting Sail: Geo­gra­phies of Race in Black Liv­er­pool. Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2005.

Gra­ham, Stephen. “Auto­mat­ed Repair and Back­up Sys­tems.” Glob­al­iza­tion in Prac­tice, edit­ed by N.J. Thrift, A. Tick­ell, S. Wool­gar and W.H. Rupp, Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2014.

Holt, Jen­nifer and Patrick Von­der­au, edi­tors. Sig­nal Traf­fic: Crit­i­cal Stud­ies of Media Infra­struc­tures. Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois Press, 2015.

Massey, Doreen. Space, Place, and Gen­der. Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press, 1994.

Mat­tern, Shan­non. “Cloud and Field: On the Resur­gence of ‘Field Guides’ in a Net­worked Age.” Places, Aug. 2016. https://​placesjour​nal​.org/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​/​c​l​o​u​d​-​a​n​d​-​f​i​e​ld/. Accessed July 10, 2017.

Parks, Lisa. “‘Stuff You Can Kick’: Toward a The­o­ry of Media Infra­struc­tures.” Between Human­i­ties and the Dig­i­tal, edit­ed by Patrick Svens­son and David Theo Gold­berg, MIT Press, 2015, pp. 355-373.

Starosiel­s­ki, Nicole. The Under­sea Net­work. Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2015.

Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place: The Per­spec­tive of Expe­ri­ence. Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press, 1977.

This arti­cle is licensed under a  Cre­ative Com­mons 4.0 Inter­na­tion­al License although cer­tain works ref­er­enced here­in may be sep­a­rate­ly licensed, or the author has exer­cised their right to fair deal­ing under the Cana­di­an Copy­right Act.