The popular myth of an immaterial internet is allowing our cities to be covertly corrupted by private infrastructure devoid of any sense of public generosity
Years ago, on a quiet lane in rural Devon, I saw a crew of engineers drag great chunks of copper cable from a trench. Each was a thick bundle of copper, remnants of a redundant transatlantic telecommunications cable. The gross physicality of this dilapidated technology seemed remarkable at the time but today communications infrastructure is quietly becoming ubiquitous as it distorts cities and landscapes. As digital space becomes ever more vibrant, the physical spaces which enable it are affected.
Farm, a recent film by pioneer of digital media John Gerrard, offers a similar visual exposure to the physical infrastructure of the ordinarily ethereal internet. The film slowly revolves around a digital model of a Google data centre on the anonymous MidAmerica Industrial Park in Pryor Creek, Oklahoma. This site is normally all but invisible to the public, in direct contrast to the highly visible search platform that it facilitates. The artist chose the data centre for its formal similarity to the subject of previous work, a pork-processing plant. And as with the architecture of global food logistics, that of the data centre is extraordinarily banal − a fact that will come as a surprise to anyone who has seen the multi-coloured fun palaces depicted in the Google-commissioned photography of Connie Zhou or heard about Google’s Finnish data centre designed by Alvar Aalto and sporting a staff sauna. Impressive were it not that the building was originally designed as a paper-pulping mill and never intended to be anything other than an isolated industrial facility. The Google data centres aren’t meant to be seen or experienced by the public, except in the carefully choreographed photographs or sanctioned Street View walkthroughs. It’s not just Google wanting to keep the public at arm’s length: the internet’s infrastructure is not only practically invisible, it is almost entirely built by private companies. From Hibernia Networks’ sub-marine fibre-optic cables under the Atlantic to Telehouse Europe’s ‘colocation’ data centres across London, the critical components that enable 21st-century public life to function are all controlled by private corporations.
It wasn’t always this way, networked digital infrastructure − in the halcyon days before its near-to monopolisation by companies like Facebook and Google − was originally fundamentally seen as a public good. For example, the heroic Project Cybersyn, a cybernetic network in 1970s socialist Chile, had at its heart the German designer Gui Bonsiepe’s operations room. Looking like a cross between a debating chamber and the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, it was the symbolic operational heart of the system. Though more conceptually advanced than the actual technology available, it was used for several years to help run the country’s industrial output by monitoring and determining the productivity of factories with a network of telex machines. Bonsiepe’s operations room was destroyed during Augusto Pinochet’s US-funded coup in 1973, allegedly assisted by a private US telecommunications corporation.
Internet infrastructure, despite the cuddly brand values of its owners, has no civic intent
In the England of the 17th century, communication’s independence from private interests was a founding principle of the recently privatised Royal Mail, and helped to guarantee the security of the post between sender and recipient. The public infrastructure of the postal service cultivated a plethora of examples of generous public architecture, particularly throughout its heyday in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. The central post office in St Martin’s-le-Grand by Henry Tanner provided an extraordinary public hall bedecked in Irish green and Arni Alto marble, with an enormous mahogany counter running its entire length. The generosity of this principal space was partly facilitated by it being the first major application of reinforced concrete in Britain, an expense justified by the pursuit of public service.
Contemporary communications infrastructure, despite the cuddly brand values of its owners, has nothing of this civic intent. When digital infrastructure arrives in the city it occupies disused office space as it does at One Wilshire in Los Angeles; existing telecommunications spaces like the AT&T Long Lines Building and 60 Hudson Street in New York; or dull data parks built adjacent to financial centres like the one that houses the Telehouse buildings and London Internet Exchange in London’s Docklands.
While the internet might occupy a growing real space within our cities, it is rare that this space is made visible. Even the newly opened Volta Data Centre in central London revels in its anonymity. Previously a Reuters data centre, it has been refurbished by AECOM into a dark, brick behemoth that eats up a block of city while giving very little to the neighbourhood in return. Volta needs such an urban location to minimise latency, the increasingly previous time delay of any digital system which is a factor of a user’s distance from the network exchange. It is in the pursuit of low latency that data centres and carrier hotels, previously found in out-of-town business parks, are making their way into the centre of our cities.
The ambition behind the postal infrastructure that preceded these data centres was not only to provide a public service, but to provide a civic architecture as the conduit through which we could engage with that public service, each other and the polis. They were the physical, urban spaces that operated as a conduit for the expansion of the active political city over a territory of potential communication. By contrast, today we engage with each other via private devices through an entirely private network. The lack of a visible, accessible architecture of the internet is representative of a dangerous misunderstanding of the importance of its infrastructure to our common experience of the future city.