8-2 Table of Con­tents | http://​dx​.doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​7​7​4​2​/​I​M​A​G​E​.​L​D​.​8​.​2.5 | Tay­lor­PDF

The Tech­noaes­thet­ics of Data Cen­tre “White Space”

Abstract | Why are the walls, floors, and ceil­ings of data cen­tres always paint­ed white? Pho­tographs of data cen­tre inte­ri­ors tend to focus on the advanced tech­nolo­gies con­tained with­in them, while the sur­round­ing white sur­faces dis­ap­pear into the back­ground. Bring­ing this over­looked design fea­ture to the fore­ground, this essay explores the tech­ni­cal func­tions, tem­po­ral­i­ties, and trans­paren­cies of white space with­in data centres.

La tech­noesté­tique de « l’espace blanc » du cen­tre de données

Résumé | Pourquoi les murs, les planch­ers et les pla­fonds des cen­tres de don­nées sont-ils tou­jours peints en blanc? Les pho­togra­phies de l’intérieur des cen­tres de don­nées ont ten­dance à se con­cen­tr­er sur les tech­nolo­gies de pointe qu'elles con­ti­en­nent, tan­dis que les sur­faces blanch­es envi­ron­nantes dis­parais­sent en arrière-plan. En met­tant en lumière cet élé­ment de con­cep­tion sou­vent nég­ligé, cette étude explore les fonc­tions tech­niques, les tem­po­ral­ités et les trans­parences de l'espace blanc dans les cen­tres de données.

A.R.E. Tay­lor | Uni­ver­si­ty of Cambridge

The Technoaesthetics of Data Centre “White Space”

And “white” appears. Absolute white. White beyond all white­ness. White of the com­ing of white. White with­out com­pro­mise, through exclu­sion, through total erad­i­ca­tion of non-white. Insane, enraged white, scream­ing with whiteness.
—Hen­ri Michaux (198)

What then is the essen­tial nature of cloudiness?
—Lud­wig Wittgen­stein (15)


White space” is a term used in the data cen­tre indus­try to describe the space allo­cat­ed for IT equip­ment. It is the space occu­pied by serv­er cab­i­nets, stor­age, net­work gear, racks, air-con­di­tion­ing units, and pow­er-dis­tri­b­u­tion sys­tems. The phrase also refers to the emp­ty, usable square footage that is avail­able for the deploy­ment of future IT equip­ment. Opti­mis­ing white space is a key part of data cen­tre design and man­age­ment. Gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, the more white space the bet­ter, as the abil­i­ty to expand com­put­ing capac­i­ty is essen­tial to ensur­ing long-term busi­ness growth. White space man­age­ment (WSM) is an increas­ing­ly valu­able skill for data cen­tre man­agers who should be able to max­imise usage of white space by strate­gi­cal­ly deploy­ing IT equip­ment to increase facil­i­ty effi­cien­cy and save space.

Weaved around three pho­tographs of the inte­ri­or whitescape of a data cen­tre man­aged by Secu­ra Data Cen­tres[1] in the north-east of Eng­land, this exper­i­men­tal essay blends insid­er (emic) and out­sider (etic) voic­es togeth­er to explore the tech­ni­cal and aes­thet­ic - “tech­noaes­thet­ic” - oper­a­tions of white space. The term “tech­noaes­thet­ics” aims to cap­ture the fusion “of appear­ance and util­i­ty” (Mas­co 368) that white space encom­pass­es by address­ing the ways in which the white­washed sur­faces of the data cen­tre have a tech­ni­cal func­tion but also an aes­thet­ic (and there­fore social, polit­i­cal, and his­tor­i­cal) dimension.

A vari­ety of com­men­ta­tors have recent­ly begun to grap­ple with cloud com­put­ing as both a metaphor and a mate­r­i­al infra­struc­ture. It is typ­i­cal­ly argued that the metaphor­i­cal con­ceit of “the cloud” evokes images of ethe­re­al­i­ty and imma­te­ri­al­i­ty that active­ly eras­es the phys­i­cal­i­ty of Inter­net infra­struc­ture and rhetor­i­cal­ly con­ceals the polit­i­cal real­i­ties of its prac­tices and process­es. Crit­i­cal­ly and cre­ative­ly explor­ing the gap between the metaphor of the cloud and its mate­r­i­al com­po­nents, this nascent body of work has attempt­ed to draw atten­tion to the fibre-optic cables, pipes, wires, and satel­lites that are seem­ing­ly removed by the mis­lead­ing cloud metaphor (Parks; Blum; Starosiel­s­ki). Across these diverse projects, per­haps the most per­sis­tent­ly exam­ined object of cloud infra­struc­ture has been the data cen­tre (Arnall; Bri­dle; Gra­ham; Holt and Von­der­au; Hu; Jones; Levin and Jef­fery). Yet, while data cen­tres and the tech­ni­cal equip­ment con­tained with­in them have been sub­ject to grow­ing crit­i­cal reflec­tion, the white floors, ceil­ings, walls, and sur­faces have been left large­ly ignored, appear­ing only as a pas­sive back­drop for the action of oth­er sociotech­ni­cal arrangements.

His­to­ries of archi­tec­ture have long-recog­nised the struc­tur­al role of archi­tec­tur­al fea­tures that may at first appear “super­fi­cial”, such as the white wall (Wigley; el-Khoury). Space, too, is nev­er a neu­tral back­drop but a prod­uct of people’s inter­ac­tions with the mate­r­i­al world (Lefeb­vre). Build­ing on insights from the his­to­ry of mod­ern archi­tec­ture and bring­ing the white space of data cen­tres into rela­tion with oth­er white spaces from pop­u­lar cul­ture, this essay will explore what this over­looked design fea­ture may tell us about the cloud and its sup­port­ing infrastructure.

Public Images

The last decade has seen a slow but steady increase in images of data cen­tres cir­cu­lat­ed with­in the glob­al medi­a­s­phere, with visu­al tech­nolo­gies facil­i­tat­ing the aes­theti­ci­sa­tion of the white data cen­trescape. The fic­tion­al action of a grow­ing num­ber of films and TV shows has occurred with­in the white space of data cen­tres (Smo­laks), while pho­tographs of these “archi­tec­tur­al curiosi­ties” (Stasch 77) fre­quent­ly gar­nish arti­cles, exposés, and essays in the pop­u­lar press. Chanel even adopt­ed a data cen­tre theme for their SS17 event for Paris Fash­ion week, with the cat­walk trans­formed into a white floor flanked by white serv­er racks (Moss). It is the aes­thet­i­cal­ly-pleas­ing white spaces of the data cen­tre that are most often pho­tographed or filmed in adver­tis­ing cam­paigns and oth­er media prod­ucts. Rarely do we see what some prac­ti­tion­ers refer to as the “grey space”: the unpho­to­genic back­stage areas of the data cen­tre where back-end equip­ment like switch gear, unin­ter­rupt­ible pow­er sup­plies, trans­form­ers, chillers, and gen­er­a­tors are locat­ed. White space plays an impor­tant role in medi­at­ing and trans­form­ing pop­u­lar imag­i­nar­ies of the cloud. We might say, then, that data cen­tres are steadi­ly com­ing out from behind the screens of the dig­i­tal world and are increas­ing­ly infil­trat­ing the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion through a num­ber of visu­al chan­nels and media forms.

The data cen­tre industry’s increas­ing vis­i­bil­i­ty is heav­i­ly entan­gled with sev­er­al major polit­i­cal devel­op­ments. Per­haps the most sig­nif­i­cant of these was the leak­ing of top secret doc­u­ments by ex-NSA con­trac­tor Edward Snow­den in 2013, which revealed exten­sive part­ner­ships between gov­ern­ment mass sur­veil­lance projects and tech com­pa­nies like Microsoft, Google, Face­book, and Apple, who grant­ed organ­i­sa­tions per­mis­sion to access data stored in their data cen­tres as part of var­i­ous sur­veil­lance pro­grams (such as the NSA’s PRISM and GCHQ’s Tem­pest pro­grams). Tech com­pa­nies have released exten­sive visu­al footage of their data cen­tres as part of a larg­er effort to restore pub­lic trust in the post-Snow­den envi­ron­ment.  The reg­u­lar and high­ly pub­li­cised hack­ing of glob­al cor­po­ra­tions such as Sony, Talk­Talk, and Yahoo! has fur­ther drawn atten­tion to the ethics and (in)security of prac­tices and process­es of data stor­age. Increas­ing­ly strin­gent inter­na­tion­al reg­u­la­tions on data sov­er­eign­ty, in which data is sub­ject to the laws of the coun­try in which it is stored, has rad­i­cal­ly rein­forced the sig­nif­i­cance of geo­graph­ic space with­in cloud cul­ture and result­ed in a wide­ly-pub­li­cised boom in data cen­tre con­struc­tion in “infor­ma­tion friend­ly” coun­tries like Lux­em­bourg (Dawn-His­cox) and Ice­land (John­son). Heavy crit­i­cism from envi­ron­men­tal pol­i­cy mak­ers over the industry’s exces­sive (fos­sil fuel) ener­gy con­sump­tion to pow­er and cool IT equip­ment has also played a cen­tral role in many com­pa­nies relo­cat­ing their data cen­tres in Nordic coun­tries, where they can take advan­tage of the nat­u­ral­ly cool cli­mate. These sociopo­lit­i­cal and geopo­lit­i­cal devel­op­ments have steadi­ly brought data cen­tres into the media spot­light, mobil­is­ing pop­u­lar opin­ion as well as aca­d­e­m­ic reflec­tion. Indeed, a grad­ual cul­tur­al awak­en­ing to the polit­i­cal real­i­ties of data stor­age has occurred: data in “the cloud” is increas­ing­ly fig­ured less as some ethe­re­al evap­o­ra­tion in a kind of Inter­net water cycle but is increas­ing­ly imag­ined to be stored – held hostage, even - on cor­po­rate hard dri­ves hid­den in sin­is­ter serv­er farms.

Pub­lic debates and dis­cus­sions about data cen­tres and cloud com­put­ing with­in the pop­u­lar press and acad­e­mia thus tend to revolve around ques­tions of pri­va­cy, trust, and trans­paren­cy. It is large­ly in response to accu­sa­tions of non-trans­paren­cy that tech com­pa­nies like Face­book, Ama­zon, Apple, Microsoft, and Google have engaged in rig­or­ous pub­lic­i­ty cam­paigns visu­al­is­ing their data cen­tres (or “ful­fil­ment cen­tres” in Amazon’s case) in an attempt to improve their pub­lic image.

As data cen­tres begin to repo­si­tion them­selves more vis­i­bly with­in a vari­ety of media land­scapes, a flood of data cen­tre imagery has been unleashed show­cas­ing the phys­i­cal insides of the Inter­net. Google has released pho­to gal­leries, panoram­ic tours and video footage of their data cen­tres, fea­tur­ing the friend­ly (and eth­ni­cal­ly and gen­der diverse) faces of the staff who work in these build­ings. Ama­zon has employed a sim­i­lar strat­e­gy, releas­ing high-def­i­n­i­tion footage of their machine-ware­hous­es inter­spersed with brief talk­ing-head inter­views of their ware­house pack­ers (or “ful­fil­ment cen­tre asso­ciates” in Ama­zon par­lance). Exten­sive pho­to and news cov­er­age accom­pa­nied the 2013 open­ing of Facebook’s “green” data cen­tre in Luleå, Swe­den (Jones; Von­der­au). Face­book also made the blue­prints pub­lic for their recent­ly con­struct­ed facil­i­ty in Prineville, Ore­gon (Quirk). Microsoft has sim­i­lar­ly jumped on the band­wag­on, mak­ing free Quick­Time video tours of their data cen­tres avail­able for down­load from their cor­po­rate web­site.[2] In fact, today, the major­i­ty of data cen­tres - from the cor­po­rate behe­moths to the inde­pen­dent colos - have some form of image gallery or 3D vir­tu­al tour on their web­sites where you can scroll through var­i­ous pho­tographs or view video footage of the facility.

Data cen­tre inte­ri­ors tend to be rep­re­sent­ed as spe­cialised tech­no­log­i­cal envi­ron­ments full of colour­ful cables, com­plex wiring and futur­is­tic-look­ing IT equip­ment. Yet, while the spe­cif­ic machin­ery pic­tured in these pub­lic­i­ty shots always varies, the white ceil­ings, walls, and floors that form the back­ground against which the equip­ment is dis­played, rarely, if ever, changes [Fig­ure 1].

Fig­ure 1: A world of white space.

Virtual Spaces

Jour­ney­ing through data cen­tres – whether in per­son, by brows­ing online images, or through a 3D vir­tu­al tour of a facil­i­ty – is per­haps the clos­est a human can get to being sucked into the Inter­net. On the serv­er hard dri­ves locked behind the per­fo­rat­ed doors of the white met­al cab­i­nets, data is stored and accessed by Inter­net users from all over the world. The whirring machin­ery and the giant cables and wires are the organs and intestines of the Inter­net. Seem­ing­ly end­less air-con­di­tioned cor­ri­dors of iden­ti­cal serv­er cab­i­nets sur­round you as you ven­ture through this strange data space. But this is not the 8-bit “elec­tron­ic world” of “cyber­space” as imaged and imag­ined in the vin­tage visions of the film Tron (1982), William Gibson’s Neu­ro­mancer (1984), or any oth­er “human-sucked-into-a-com­put­er” nar­ra­tive from cyber­cul­ture films and lit­er­a­ture - the visu­al strate­gies of which were pre­dom­i­nant­ly informed by the aes­thet­ics of ear­ly graph­ics pro­grams and the com­put­er-gen­er­at­ed neon-grid geo­gra­phies of ear­ly arcade video games like Pong.[3] Instead of black back­drops vec­torised by space-time neon grid­lines we have a vast expanse of white­ness. The only neon here comes from the flick­er­ing serv­er-lights and their reflec­tions in the flu­o­res­cent white of the floor-space when the lights are turned off.

This is not to say that the visu­al strate­gies of data cen­tre adver­tis­ing cam­paigns do not play with the semi­otic rem­nants of these retro cyber-visions. “Data cen­tres often turn their lights off for pho­to shoots so you can prop­er­ly see the neon,” Stu­art Hart­ley, the Chief Tech­nol­o­gy Offi­cer at Secu­ra explained to me, “sim­ply because it makes them look more vir­tu­al­is­tic” (Hart­ley). The image of the serv­er-cab­i­net­ed cor­ri­dor [Fig­ure 2], typ­i­cal­ly bathed in blue neon, has become the canon­i­cal icon of the data cen­tre. Pro­duced and repro­duced by and through “pat­terns of imag­i­nal rep­e­ti­tion” (Fran­k­land 103) and mass media cir­cu­la­tion, it is the shot of a neon-soaked aisle flanked by racks of encaged servers that is no doubt the most fre­quent­ly encoun­tered rep­re­sen­ta­tion of data cen­tres today (returned by any basic Google search for “data cen­tre”). In adver­tis­ing images, the sym­met­ri­cal geome­tries of the cab­i­nets are typ­i­cal­ly com­bined with a low-angle shot, cin­e­mat­i­cal­ly trans­form­ing the serv­er cab­i­nets into sub­lime, giant mono­liths rem­i­nis­cent of the extra-ter­res­tri­al machine-mono­liths in Stan­ley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

In keep­ing with William Gibson’s (60) var­i­ous descrip­tions of cyber­space as “dis­tance­less” and “extend­ing to infin­i­ty”, the white­washed inte­ri­or makes this data cen­tre appear sub­lime­ly vast. Paint­ing sur­faces white is a tech­nique com­mon­ly deployed by inte­ri­or design­ers to make spaces appear larg­er than they are. The hyper-illu­mi­nat­ed, uni­form white­ness of this data cen­tre obscures the points where the walls, ceil­ing, and floor­ing join togeth­er, cre­at­ing the illu­sion of an almost dimen­sion­less space that appears “seam­less, con­tin­u­ous, emp­ty, unin­ter­rupt­ed” (Batch­e­lor, Chro­mo­pho­bia 9). In this respect, the white innards of the data cen­tre per­haps have more in com­mon with the con­tem­po­rary visu­al­i­sa­tions of vir­tu­al spaces that we find in mul­ti-dimen­sion­al mod­el­ling soft­ware pro­grams, vir­tu­al world edi­tors (some­times referred to as “sand­box­es”) and the famous vir­tu­al­is­tic white spaces that fea­tured in The Matrix fran­chise (1999-2003).

Yet data cen­tre white space not only emits signs of vir­tu­al­i­ty through its asso­ci­a­tion with the imag­i­nal ren­der­ings of “infi­nite datas­capes” (Gib­son 288) from pop­u­lar cul­ture, but is also the direct prod­uct of vir­tu­al­i­sa­tion tech­nolo­gies. In data cen­tre par­lance, vir­tu­al­i­sa­tion describes an approach to pool­ing and shar­ing tech­nol­o­gy resources between clients and has been wide­ly adopt­ed through­out the indus­try in recent years.[4] Ian Cardy, the Head of Dis­as­ter Recov­ery at Secu­ra explained the log­ic behind vir­tu­al­i­sa­tion to me as follows:

Before the recent surge in vir­tu­al­i­sa­tion, data cen­tres were rapid­ly run­ning out of white space. Servers and stor­age devices were only run­ning at 10% or less of total capac­i­ty, mean­ing floor-space was fill­ing up with hard­ware. Vir­tu­al­i­sa­tion basi­cal­ly enables us to unlock the unused 90% of a device’s capac­i­ty… Think of a serv­er or hard dri­ve as a tow­er block with­out any floors in it; you can’t access all the unused space above your head, which just goes to waste. Vir­tu­al­i­sa­tion soft­ware divides that space into mul­ti­ple floors and rooms and puts in stair­ways and doors to access them. This means mul­ti­ple clients can then expe­ri­ence fast and seam­less serv­er or stor­age access with­out real­is­ing they are all liv­ing next door to each oth­er in the same device or dis­trib­uted across mul­ti­ple devices. In a vir­tu­alised envi­ron­ment, mul­ti­ple phys­i­cal machines can be con­sol­i­dat­ed into few­er machines, mean­ing less phys­i­cal hard­ware is need­ed, which great­ly increas­es the avail­abil­i­ty of white space in the facil­i­ty. (Cardy)

Vir­tu­al­i­sa­tion enables data cen­tres to max­imise the util­i­sa­tion of their hard­ware and “has allowed for thou­sands if not mil­lions of users to share a data cen­tre in the cloud” (Hu 61).[5] By pool­ing IT resources togeth­er in this way, facil­i­ty oper­a­tors are able to reduce the num­ber of phys­i­cal devices in the data cen­tre and reclaim vital square footage. “Vir­tu­al­i­sa­tion”, Cardy sum­marised, “means less hard­ware [and] more white space”.

While the term “vir­tu­al­i­sa­tion” con­jures imag­i­nar­ies of dema­te­ri­al­i­sa­tion or non-phys­i­cal­i­ty, there is always an under­ly­ing phys­i­cal machine doing the work. At the same time, how­ev­er, vir­tu­al­i­sa­tion can be seen as a dema­te­ri­al­is­ing process to the extent that its imple­men­ta­tion enables data cen­tres to elim­i­nate excess phys­i­cal­i­ty in the form of sur­plus hard­ware and free-up white space. For data cen­tre prac­ti­tion­ers, then, the white, dimen­sion­less spaces of the data cen­tre not only look like the com­put­er-gen­er­at­ed spaces that fea­ture in pop­u­lar imag­i­nar­ies of “the vir­tu­al”, but are the prod­uct of vir­tu­al­i­sa­tion itself, sym­bol­ic of the moment when the vir­tu­al has become infrastructured.

Fig­ure 2: The icon­ic image of the serv­er-cab­i­net­ed corridor.

Future-Proof Spaces

White­ness has long-fea­tured in cul­tur­al images and imag­i­na­tions of the future. The white wall was the icon of the mod­ernist archi­tec­tur­al move­ment pio­neered by Le Cor­busier – and lat­er asso­ci­at­ed with min­i­mal­ism.[6] It reached the height of its pop­u­lar­i­ty dur­ing the inter­war peri­od and was cen­tral to the mod­ernist project’s desire to white­wash the past and build a new future after the First World War (Wigley; Bal­lard). White space has also been a recur­ring motif in sci­ence fic­tion films, from George Lucas’ THX 1138 (1971) to the Wachowski’s The Matrix (1999). White sur­faces are a cen­tral design fea­ture of Hol­ly­wood space­ship inte­ri­ors – from the Space Age cin­e­ma of the 1960s and 70s to present-day block­busters and video games. When com­bined with the advanced com­put­er tech­nol­o­gy and the her­met­i­cal­ly-sealed metal­lic sur­faces,[7] the white ceil­ings, floors and walls, give data cen­tres an unmis­tak­ably space­ship-like appear­ance.[8] “White sur­faces just have that futur­is­tic feel about them”, Hart­ley explained to me. “It’s impor­tant for a data cen­tre to look futur­is­tic; you don’t want them to look old or dat­ed, as this doesn’t inspire con­fi­dence in the client… white can make a facil­i­ty look like it’s going to last well into the future” (Hart­ley).

Yet, while the white spaces of sci­ence fic­tion and mod­ernist archi­tec­ture imaged and imag­ined new pos­si­ble futures, the white spaces of the data cen­tre do not attain their futu­ri­ty by virtue of their active role in bring­ing new futures into being but rather seem to achieve their futur­is­tic effect by virtue of their asso­ci­a­tion with these future-mak­ing projects of the past. In this way, the white­washed tech­noaes­thet­ics of data cen­tre inte­ri­ors cre­ates more a “retroac­tive sense of futu­ri­ty” (Jakob­s­son and Stiern­st­edt 2012:112). They do not so much par­tic­i­pate in the pro­duc­tion of new pos­si­ble futures but rather, par­tic­i­pate in the visuo-nos­tal­gic repro­duc­tion of futures past.

The tech­ni­cal func­tion of white space as part of a broad­er antic­i­pa­to­ry prac­tice known as “future-proof­ing” fur­ther com­pli­cates the data cen­tre industry’s rela­tion to the future. “Future-proof­ing” is an emic term that describes an approach or design phi­los­o­phy to data cen­tre resources that aims to save infra­struc­ture and IT from rapid obso­les­cence. In the fast-chang­ing world of the data cen­tre, where new (and extreme­ly expen­sive) equip­ment is con­stant­ly being devel­oped and deployed, it is impor­tant that this equip­ment will last well into the dis­tant future and not be “out­dat­ed before it’s even installed”, as Cardy put it. Max­imis­ing the avail­abil­i­ty and pro­duc­tion of white space (through tech­niques like vir­tu­al­i­sa­tion as well as strate­gi­cal­ly organ­is­ing the arrange­ment of IT equip­ment) is a future-proof­ing mea­sure that aims to ensure the con­tin­ued growth and future of the data centre.

The prac­tice of max­imis­ing the avail­abil­i­ty and pro­duc­tion of white space so that data cen­tres do not get too full too quick­ly is guid­ed by log­ics of pre­pared­ness, con­tin­gency, redun­dan­cy, and resilience rather than ideals of renew­al or regen­er­a­tion. While the pres­ence of white space rep­re­sents the pos­si­bil­i­ty of future expan­sion and growth, the future, as embod­ied in the con­cept of future-proof­ing, appears not so much as some­thing to be embraced but some­thing to pro­tect the data cen­tre from, to stop the future from get­ting in and out­dat­ing the tech­nol­o­gy. White space not only regur­gi­tates the mise-en-scène of futures past, but, as a future-proof­ing tech­nique becomes a bar­ri­cade against future futures, block­ing them out. The aes­thet­ic strat­e­gy of white­wash­ing, which pro­duces the illu­sion of seam­less­ness, fur­ther rein­forces this her­met­ic imag­i­nary. While dis­course on Big Data is dom­i­nat­ed by opti­mistic hypes and hopes for a bet­ter future, the antic­i­pa­tive white spaces of the build­ings in which this pro­lep­tic data is stored reflect an inabil­i­ty to imag­ine that future as any­thing oth­er than threatening.

Sterile Spaces

The star­tling white­ness of their archi­tec­tur­al sur­faces presents data cen­tres as ster­ile spaces. Data cen­tres are high­ly con­trolled envi­ron­ments. A vari­ety of con­t­a­m­i­nants can cause last­ing dam­age to the expen­sive equip­ment housed with­in these infra­struc­tures. Organ­ic and inor­gan­ic par­tic­u­late mat­ter (PM), such as dust, plant pol­lens, human hair, liq­uid droplets and smoke from cig­a­rettes and near­by traf­fic can inter­fere with the dri­ve mech­a­nisms of mag­net­ic media (such as the read/write actu­a­tor arms in hard disk dri­ves), caus­ing cor­ro­sion, oxide flake-off, wast­ed ener­gy, and per­ma­nent equip­ment fail­ure. The white sur­faces and well-lit rooms serve to make vis­i­ble any for­eign mat­ter that may have entered the facil­i­ty. Here the data cen­tre whitescape joins “the doc­tors white coat, the white tiles of the bath­room [and] the white walls of the hos­pi­tal” (Wigley 5). Fur­ther­more, for secu­ri­ty rea­sons, most data cen­tre con­struc­tion stan­dards pro­hib­it win­dows that pro­vide “visu­al access” to the data cen­tre, par­tic­u­lar­ly the com­put­er rooms, data floors, and oth­er secured areas. The reflec­tive prop­er­ties of the white sur­faces there­fore enable facil­i­ty oper­a­tors to get more mileage out of their arti­fi­cial light­ing, reduc­ing elec­tric­i­ty costs. For this rea­son, often the IT equip­ment itself is paint­ed white [Fig­ure 2].

The bright­ness of white sur­faces, where light is reflect­ed, is a fre­quent­ly deployed trope in the domain of pub­lic health, where the white wall has long-played a promi­nent role not only in the exer­cise and dis­play of clean­li­ness, but also “in the con­struc­tion of the con­cept of clean­li­ness” (el-Khoury 8; Berthold). In an analy­sis of urban sani­ti­sa­tion projects in late-18th-cen­tu­ry France, Rodolphe el-Khoury sug­gests that the rhetor­i­cal pow­er of the white sur­face stemmed pri­mar­i­ly from its visu­al prop­er­ties, or, more pre­cise­ly, from its capac­i­ty to trans­late the con­di­tion of clean­li­ness into an image. El-Khoury argues “The norms of clean­li­ness were moral rather than func­tion­al” and “had more to do with ‘pro­pri­ety’ than with health” (8). In this way, from the 1780s white­ness came to func­tion as an evi­dent index of clean­li­ness in the domain of pub­lic health and hygiene – a sym­bol­ic code that con­tin­ues to be deployed in diverse are­nas today - from san­i­ta­tion pho­tog­ra­phy to data cen­tre security.

This “evi­den­tiary” rela­tion­al­i­ty of white­ness and clean­li­ness, is, of course, social and his­tor­i­cal and tight­ly tied to long-stand­ing racial asso­ci­a­tions that emerged from the clas­si­fi­ca­to­ry projects of the Enlight­en­ment era. Dur­ing this peri­od, white­ness was brought into rela­tion with con­cepts of clean­li­ness, puri­ty, and civil­i­sa­tion, while black­ness was aligned with dirt, impu­ri­ty, and back­ward­ness (Gar­ner 175; Cret­ton; Dyer). White­ness-as-clean­li­ness is thus a social clean­li­ness. Jonathan Shore, the Data Hall Man­ag­er at Secu­ra, sug­gest­ed that “white looks vir­tu­ous, inno­cent”. He elab­o­rat­ed by explain­ing that, in the hyper-lumi­nous data halls, “there are no dark cor­ners for dirt to accu­mu­late or secrets to hide” (Shore 2016b). Here white­ness elim­i­nates dark­ness, trans­form­ing data cen­tres into clean and moral spaces in the process. In our con­ver­sa­tions, data cen­tre pro­fes­sion­als would often align the inter­nal white­ness of the data cen­tre with a social or moral clean­li­ness, reflec­tive of the data centre’s respon­si­bil­i­ty, secu­ri­ty, and, per­haps some­what para­dox­i­cal­ly, transparency.

Transparent Spaces

While the opac­i­ty of the white sur­face might at first appear dia­met­ri­cal­ly opposed to estab­lished con­cep­tions of trans­paren­cy (Wittgen­stein 24), for Shore it actu­al­ly makes Secura’s data cen­tres more trans­par­ent: “A white wall obvi­ous­ly isn’t see-through like a glass wall,” he high­light­ed, “but we’re not try­ing to hide that we’re hid­ing some­thing” (Shore 2016b). For Shore, trans­paren­cy was a sus­pect term, the invo­ca­tion of which was always an act of con­ceal­ment: “It’s the sus­pi­cious­ly over-trans­par­ent build­ings that we should be cau­tious of,” he argued, “the see-through office work­spaces and BBC news­rooms… that pass under the radar because they look like they’re hid­ing noth­ing.”[9]

The white inte­ri­ors of data cen­tres stand in stark oppo­si­tion to oth­er archi­tec­tures of the so-called “Infor­ma­tion Age”, in which trans­paren­cy of infor­ma­tion has arguably led to trans­par­ent inte­ri­ors and exte­ri­ors (Shoked 101). Con­tem­po­rary archi­tec­tures are typ­i­cal­ly defined by see-through sur­faces, open spaces, and spher­i­cal shapes that elim­i­nate angles and cor­ners. Such archi­tec­tures reflect non-hier­ar­chi­cal, hola­crat­ic man­age­ment forms and aspire to ideals of open­ness and trans­paren­cy. Walls are not white but glass, while ceil­ings and floors are stripped back to expose the bare pipes, con­crete, or met­al foun­da­tions as if there is noth­ing to hide.

In con­trast, with­in the rec­tan­gu­lar geome­tries of data cen­tres, cor­ners pro­lif­er­ate and trans­par­ent mate­ri­als like glass, Per­spex, and translu­cent poly­car­bon­ate are active­ly avoid­ed. The ubiq­ui­tous white sur­faces in data cen­tres are overt­ly opaque yet pro­vide Shore with a claim to trans­paren­cy by virtue of that very opac­i­ty. Indeed, the extreme opac­i­ty of Secura’s white spaces high­lights – rather than hides - the act of con­ceal­ment that is usu­al­ly elid­ed with­in images of build­ings or spaces claim­ing to be trans­par­ent. Shore sug­gests “The opac­i­ty of the white basi­cal­ly draws your atten­tion to what you can’t see” (Shore 2016b). Here, white space does not just sym­bol­ise clean­li­ness but cleans­es itself from the ide­ol­o­gy – or ‘tyran­ny’ - of trans­paren­cy (Strath­ern).

As white walls grad­u­al­ly became a sta­ple of mod­ern archi­tec­ture, white­ness as a sig­ni­fi­er of clean­li­ness also came to sig­ni­fy absence – not only of dirt, but also of visu­al stim­uli (el-Khoury). The colour white became a neu­tral or blank back­ground that was sup­pos­ed­ly colour­less in the same way white peo­ple were “race­less” (Cret­ton; Dyer). As such, white walls did not need to be see-through to be trans­par­ent, because they “are just what they are” with “no pos­si­bil­i­ty of lying” (Batch­e­lor, Chro­mo­pho­bia 10). Yet with the vast whit­ed rooms of the Secu­ra data cen­tre, a dif­fer­ent log­ic is at work. While Le Corbusier’s white wall sup­pos­ed­ly ren­dered archi­tec­ture trans­par­ent by lib­er­at­ing the walls from visu­al dec­o­ra­tion, Secura’s white wall prob­lema­tizes the rela­tion between trans­paren­cy and vis­i­bil­i­ty (Lefeb­vre 76; Kuchin­skaya). In Secura’s data cen­tre facil­i­ties, it is not so much about what can be seen, but whether what can’t be seen is shown. By show­ing what can’t be seen (e.g. pho­tograph­ing the white cages of the servers but not the servers them­selves) the lumi­nous whitescapes of this data cen­tre make vis­i­ble the lim­its of transparency-as-visibility.

At the same time, we must not for­get the “grey spaces” that exist in the often unseen back­ground of the data cen­tre (though the ceil­ings, floors and walls of these spaces are still often paint­ed white). Indeed, as David Batch­e­lor reminds us, “the lumi­nous is almost always accom­pa­nied by the grey” (60). While the emic divi­sion between “white” and “grey” space may at first appear to cor­re­spond to “vis­i­ble areas” and “invis­i­ble areas” respec­tive­ly, rather, these rep­re­sent two dif­fer­ent regimes of in/visibility. As we have seen, the aes­thet­i­cal­ly-pleas­ing white areas, though fre­quent­ly-visu­alised, are com­posed of reg­is­ters of vis­i­bil­i­ty and invis­i­bil­i­ty and the same goes for grey space. At the same time, Shore’s asser­tion that white­ness elim­i­nates dark cor­ners sug­gests that, though the white spaces of the Secu­ra data cen­tre may aspire to oper­ate beyond trans­paren­cy, they are still entan­gled with­in Enlight­en­ment asso­ci­a­tions of light, white­ness, truth, and moral­i­ty that under­pin con­tem­po­rary regimes of trans­paren­cy (Mehrpouya and Djel­ic). Images of white space, then, may be seen more as a kind of per­for­ma­tive play­ing with the signs of trans­paren­cy, allow­ing data cen­tres to hov­er some­where between rev­e­la­tion and concealment.

Revealed Spaces

Anoth­er white space that hov­ers between rev­e­la­tion and con­ceal­ment is the famous vir­tu­al envi­ron­ment from The Matrix (1999) known as the Con­struct. This cin­e­mat­ic white space is a pro­duc­tive tool for think­ing through some of the ways in which white space may oper­ate in data cen­tre imagery. The Matrix is set in a dystopi­an future where intel­li­gent machines keep humans in a state of sus­pend­ed ani­ma­tion, har­vest­ing their ener­gy to pow­er their machine world. Humans do not expe­ri­ence this machinic real­i­ty. Rather, they are plugged into a neur­al-inter­ac­tive vir­tu­al real­i­ty known as the Matrix. The pro­tag­o­nist is the com­put­er hack­er Neo, who learns the truth about the nature of real­i­ty from a mys­te­ri­ous fig­ure named Mor­pheus. The film fol­lows Neo as he goes through the process of dis­cov­er­ing the true con­di­tions of his exis­tence, wak­ing up from the ide­ol­o­gy of the sim­u­lat­ed Matrix and fight­ing in the war against the sen­tient machines. In per­haps one of the most mem­o­rable scenes, a data probe is insert­ed into the head­jack at the base of Neo’s skull which plugs him into the Con­struct. He is imme­di­ate­ly trans­port­ed into a com­plete­ly white and dimen­sion­less space. Mor­pheus is stand­ing in the seem­ing­ly end­less whitescape, along with two leather arm­chairs, a 1950’s tele­vi­sion set, and a small cir­cu­lar table. Mor­pheus explains that this is the Con­struct, a “load­ing pro­gram” that pro­vides users with a vir­tu­alised space in which train­ing sim­u­la­tions are run.

It is in the Con­struct that Neo begins what we might call – fol­low­ing the psy­chotrop­ic writ­ings of Hen­ri Michaux (xiii) and Tim­o­thy Leary - the process of “decon­di­tion­ing”. For these fig­ures, psy­che­del­ic drugs had a demys­ti­fy­ing effect on human con­scious­ness, enabling users to free them­selves from the ide­o­log­i­cal shack­les of their social con­di­tion­ing and thus “awak­en from a long onto­log­i­cal sleep” (Leary 76). White­ness, in par­tic­u­lar, played an impor­tant part in Michaux’s entheogenic expe­ri­ence of mesca­line. Sim­i­lar­ly, the white space in The Matrix does not just serve as a back­ground against which Neo’s onto­log­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion takes place, but is itself a con­stituent part of this trans­for­ma­tion, an active mech­a­nism of decon­di­tion­ing: it is in and through this space that Neo awak­ens to a new­ly-decon­di­tioned plane of existence.

Could we see the images of data cen­tres released by tech­nol­o­gy com­pa­nies under the guise of “trans­paren­cy” as sim­i­lar­ly oper­a­tional­is­ing white space? With­in tech com­pa­nies’ rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al strate­gies, the hyper-illu­mi­nat­ed white inte­ri­ors of data cen­tres are anal­o­gous­ly posi­tioned as the mate­r­i­al, machinic “real­i­ty” behind the illu­so­ry ide­ol­o­gy of the cloud in a way almost iden­ti­cal to the rev­e­la­tion nar­ra­tive that struc­tures The Matrix. In this way, the use of pho­to­graph­ic and video imag­ing tech­nolo­gies to reveal the phys­i­cal foun­da­tions of the cloud may be seen not sim­ply as prac­tices of visu­al­i­sa­tion and vis­i­bil­i­sa­tion, but also as belong­ing to rit­u­als of illu­mi­na­tion and rev­e­la­tion asso­ci­at­ed more with the mys­tic tradition.

A cru­cial sim­i­lar­i­ty between the whitescapes of the data cen­tre and The Matrix is the way in which they reverse the rev­e­la­tion nar­ra­tive of the mys­tic tra­di­tion (most com­mon­ly asso­ci­at­ed with occultism of secret soci­eties like the Illu­mi­nati and Freema­sons, but also tied to the psy­che­del­ic mys­ti­cism of the 1960s). Mys­ti­cism is typ­i­cal­ly under­pinned by a dual­is­tic ontol­ogy, that is, the pos­tu­la­tion of a spir­i­tu­al and a mate­r­i­al realm (Surette 13). In the clas­sic mys­ti­cal rev­e­la­tion nar­ra­tive, a tran­scen­den­tal rev­e­la­tion occurs where­by the mate­r­i­al or hylic world gives way to the sub­stance­less, imma­te­r­i­al or spir­i­tu­al plane of noume­nal real­i­ty (Yates; Surette 13). In The Matrix and the cloud rev­e­la­tion nar­ra­tive, how­ev­er, rather than achiev­ing some sort of tran­scen­den­tal access to an imma­te­r­i­al or ethe­re­al realm beyond the cloaked world of mat­ter, we expe­ri­ence the vio­lent return of mate­ri­al­i­ty: Neo is a slave in a machine world; the cloud is con­crete. Data cen­tre visu­al rev­e­la­tions enact a myth­ic rever­sal (in Lévi-Strauss­ian terms) of the tra­di­tion­al nar­ra­tive of mys­ti­cal illu­mi­na­tion. Like the decon­di­tion­ing process that occurs in the Con­struct, the aim of the cloud rev­e­la­tion nar­ra­tive is not so much to open view­ers’ eyes and minds to the spir­i­tu­al, psy­chi­cal, or divine world hid­den behind the mate­r­i­al world, but rather to reveal the mate­r­i­al real­i­ty behind the illu­so­ry myth of the cloud.

We must, how­ev­er, not over­look the slight but sig­nif­i­cant way in which the cloud rev­e­la­tion nar­ra­tive departs from that of The Matrix. Where­as in The Matrix the white Con­struct space oper­ates out­side of both the vir­tu­alised world of the Matrix and the ruins of the present-day world, in the case of the cloud rev­e­la­tion nar­ra­tive, the white space and “real­i­ty” col­lapse into each oth­er: white space is rep­re­sent­ed as the real­i­ty of the cloud. It is in this func­tion­ing, that we find the ide­o­log­i­cal oper­a­tion of the data cen­tre imagery released by tech com­pa­nies and it is pre­cise­ly here, in this sl(e)ight dif­fer­ence that a num­ber of crit­ics of the data cen­tre indus­try have posi­tioned their analyses.

While these rev­e­la­to­ry images of white space were released by tech com­pa­nies pre­dom­i­nant­ly to pro­mote trans­paren­cy and improve the pub­lic pro­files of data cen­tres, crit­ics of the indus­try have not­ed that these images offer very lit­tle in terms of pro­vid­ing any mean­ing­ful insights into the polit­i­cal real­i­ties of data stor­age prac­tices. Glossy close-ups of wires, pipes, and servers “drag” this equip­ment out of its con­text (Rojek), con­ceal­ing the “real” facts about how these build­ings oper­ate (Strath­ern 314). Holt and Von­der­au (75) have not­ed how these images trans­form cloud infra­struc­ture into a kind of abstract art [Fig­ure 3], oblit­er­at­ing the trace of any rela­tion­ship between the imaged equip­ment and larg­er envi­ron­men­tal, polit­i­cal and social process­es in which they par­tic­i­pate.[10] Indeed, non-spe­cial­ists will have lit­tle clue as to what is being pic­tured. Crit­i­cal com­men­ta­tors have thus argued that media economies pro­vide the data cen­tre indus­try with a cir­cu­ity in which to medi­ate its own vis­i­bil­i­ty, “dic­tat­ing the terms of its own rep­re­sen­ta­tion” (Levin and Jef­fery 8). These cod­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al strate­gies have the inverse effect of ren­der­ing these build­ings and their social rela­tions more invis­i­ble and opaque. Through care­ful­ly exposed, angled, and framed pho­to­graph­ic and filmic image-prod­ucts data cen­tres are trans­formed into beau­ti­ful, aes­theti­cised whitescapes, the sociopo­lit­i­cal struc­tures of knowl­edge and the vest­ed inter­ests that con­fig­ure the con­di­tions of data cen­tre vis­i­bil­i­ty are effec­tive­ly white­washed. Some­thing of a stale­mate has thus ensued. While the data cen­tre indus­try con­tin­ues to pump out “behind-the-screens” footage of cloud infra­struc­ture, that footage is always sus­pect, insuf­fi­cient and con­ceal­ing some­thing else.

Fig­ure 3: The abstract art of cloud infrastructure.

Conclusion: Cloudy Spaces

Despite the heavy crit­i­cism of “the cloud” as a mis­lead­ing metaphor, in an acci­den­tal way, the idea of cloudi­ness accu­rate­ly cap­tures the obscu­ri­ties, opac­i­ties, and con­tra­dic­tions of data cen­tres and open­ly points to the obfus­ca­to­ry oper­a­tions of “cloud­ing” or con­ceal­ing that occur in these spaces. In his Remarks on Colour, Lud­wig Wittgen­stein focus­es his atten­tion on the seem­ing­ly triv­ial fact of white’s opac­i­ty and its rela­tion to trans­paren­cy and cloudi­ness. “Is cloudy that which con­ceals forms, and con­ceals forms because it oblit­er­ates light and shad­ow?” (15). He fol­lows this ques­tion with anoth­er: “Isn’t white that which does away with dark­ness?” (Ibid). White­ness light­ens, so the puz­zle propo­si­tion goes, but clouds, though white, obscure light. The white spaces of cloud infra­struc­ture oper­ate in sim­i­lar­ly con­tra­dic­to­ry ways. While data cen­tres are essen­tial to stor­ing and man­ag­ing the infor­ma­tion that plays such an impor­tant part in pub­lic imag­i­nar­ies of the “trans­par­ent” infor­ma­tion soci­ety, their archi­tec­tures do not read­i­ly reflect the log­ic of trans­paren­cy asso­ci­at­ed with the data they store (Shoked). Their hyper-illu­mi­nat­ed inte­ri­ors are com­plete­ly opaque, but, in a “post-truth” (or, to per­haps be more accu­rate, “post-trans­par­ent”) kind of way, they are arguably more trans­par­ent than the sus­pi­cious­ly “over-trans­par­ent” archi­tec­tures of the Infor­ma­tion Age. Trans­paren­cy and opac­i­ty cease to be per­ceived as con­tra­dic­to­ry. As a future-proof­ing mea­sure the white spaces of cloud infra­struc­ture are at once ori­en­tat­ed toward the future, but also serve to block the threat­en­ing future out, steeped in medi­a­tised mem­o­ries of futures past. Span­ning the real and the fic­tive, these cin­e­mat­ic spaces engage with cul­tur­al man­i­fes­ta­tions of futu­ri­ty in film, cyber­punk, and inte­ri­or design, and play with the signs of trans­paren­cy and vis­i­bil­i­ty to such an extent that phys­i­cal­i­ty, fan­ta­sy, and tech­ni­cal func­tion are insep­a­ra­bly entangled.

These fan­tas­tic build­ings, epic in vol­ume, sit at the cen­tre of the ongo­ing indus­tri­al­i­sa­tion of com­put­ing, and white­ness thus plays an impor­tant part in their func­tion­ing, stag­ing, and imag(in)ing (Larkin). Revers­ing the rev­e­la­tion nar­ra­tives of mys­ti­cal expe­ri­ence, the white spaces of data cen­tres per­haps reveal less about “the cloud” and more about cul­tur­al fetishi­sa­tions of the phys­i­cal sites of pro­duc­tion and the inabil­i­ty of ana­lyt­i­cal dualisms like transparency/opacity, materiality/immateriality and visibility/invisibility to ade­quate­ly cap­ture and con­cep­tu­alise the con­tra­dic­tions of dig­i­tal-indus­tri­al infra­struc­tures. Data cen­tre tech­noaes­thet­ics per­for­ma­tive­ly play with and col­lapse dis­tinc­tions between these cat­e­gories. Ques­tions, accu­sa­tions, and ana­lyt­ics that fall along these lines appear hope­less­ly ill-adapt­ed to the post-trans­par­ent log­ics of these archi­tec­tures and the ter­rain they traverse.

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[1] All names and iden­ti­fy­ing details have been changed to pro­tect the pri­va­cy of indi­vid­u­als. The mate­r­i­al pre­sent­ed in this arti­cle is drawn from field­work and inter­views with data cen­tre prac­ti­tion­ers over a 15-month period.

[2] See Holdt and Von­der­au for a more com­pre­hen­sive overview of the “tech­nop­o­l­i­tics” of data cen­tre “hyper­vis­i­bil­i­ty”.

[3] The Simp­sons’ “Homer3” episode from Tree­house of Hor­ror VI (1995) and Marvel’s Ghost Rid­er 2099 com­ic book series (1994-1996) are also clear exam­ples of this grid aesthetic.

[4] Jean-François Blanchette has pro­vid­ed a detailed his­tor­i­cal con­tex­tu­al­i­sa­tion of vir­tu­al­i­sa­tion (7).

[5] For a nuanced analy­sis of vir­tu­al­i­sa­tion as a polit­i­cal ide­ol­o­gy pro­duc­tive of neolib­er­al sub­jec­tiv­i­ties, see Tung-Hui Hu (2015).

[6] Le Cor­busier intro­duced his the­o­ry of the white wall in his book, The Dec­o­ra­tive Art of Today (1925).

[7] While the focus of this essay is colour, the pol­i­tics of tex­ture play an impor­tant role in the pro­duc­tion (and sell­ing) of data cen­tre space. A sig­nif­i­cant func­tion of the hard sur­faces of the data cen­tre is their role as secu­ri­ty shields against elec­tro­mag­net­ic radi­a­tion. These sur­faces are usu­al­ly made from spe­cial­ly rein­forced metal­lic pan­els designed to block the var­i­ous fre­quen­cies, fields, sig­nals, waves and rays from threat­en­ing sources of elec­tro­mag­net­ic radi­a­tion such as light­ning, elec­tro­mag­net­ic puls­es, space weath­er, and radio fre­quen­cy inter­cep­tion devices.

[8] The influ­ence of the cinescape of the space­ship in data cen­tre design is per­haps best illus­trat­ed by the space sta­tion-themed data cen­tre devel­oped in 2013 by Bahn­hof, a Swedish Inter­net ser­vice provider (Miller). Influ­enced by sci-fi TV shows like Star Trek (1966-1969) and Space 1999 (1975-1977), the out­er shell of the data cen­tre is an inflat­able dome rem­i­nis­cent of Buck­min­ster Fuller’s geo­des­ic domes and was built by Lind­strand Tech­nolo­gies, who pre­vi­ous­ly built the para­chute that deposit­ed the Bea­gle 2 space probe on the sur­face of Mars. In a pro­mo­tion­al video, Jon Kar­lung, the CEO and vision­ary behind the sci­ence fic­tion­al data cen­tre describes how the auto­mat­ed pneu­mat­ic entry doors make a Star Trek-style whoosh­ing noise as they open and close (Miller). Jakob­s­son and Stiern­st­edt have an insight­ful analy­sis of Pio­nen, an old­er data cen­tre owned by Bahn­hof that is equal­ly sci­ence fictional.

[9] As Mar­i­lyn Strath­ern asks, “what does vis­i­bil­i­ty con­ceal?” (310).

[10] By pre­sent­ing data cen­tres as a stand-in for the “glob­al­ly dis­persed forces that actu­al­ly dri­ve the pro­duc­tion process”, cor­po­rate images of data cen­tres enact what Appadu­rai has called “pro­duc­tion fetishism” (41). Build­ing upon Marx’s the­o­ry of com­mod­i­ty fetishism, Appadurai’s con­cept of the pro­duc­tion fetish address­es the way in which local­i­ty – the local fac­to­ry or oth­er site of pro­duc­tion (in this case the data cen­tre) - “becomes a fetish” to the extent that they con­ceal geopo­lit­i­cal and transna­tion­al rela­tions that are vital to the pro­duc­tion of the cloud.

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.