“...So it really is a series of tubes.”
Google’s Data Centers, Noo-politics and the Architecture of Hegemony in Cyberspace

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“You walk through those doors and the world opens up to you. It’s a culture where information is free. A culture where the more you share and the more you ask the more you get.”

“This is the beating heart of the digital age — a physical location where the scope, grandeur, and geekiness of the kingdom of bits become manifest. As we leave the floor, I feel almost levitated by my peek inside Google’s inner sanctum.”

“Google, I really love you. If you were a person I would leave my wife and marry you :)_”

“This is corporate propaganda that truly is a treat for the eyes”

“...So it really is a series of tubes.“

Enquiry 10.1 (2013) 43-53. Journal of the Architectural Research Centres Consortium

On the 17th of October 2012, the world was in awe as Google went transparent. On a website called “Where the internet lives”, Google released a series of over 80 images by photographer Connie Zhou, offering the first ever glimpse into their top-secret data centers.

Up to that point, the Google data centers, accommodating the search engine’s ever growing number of servers, had been clouded in secrecy. An article, published earlier that year in Wired Magazine, described how, “paranoid about the competitors catching a glimpse of its gear”, Google let the maintenance staff of an outsourced server farm work in complete darkness, only allowing the use of miner’s headlamps.

In their own data centers, the company developed the most advanced customized server hardware, including highly efficient techniques for the demanding task of cooling its servers. Once disclosed, as critics like Greenpeace argued, these techniques could also help to sink the carbon footprint of other companies and thus enhance the sustainability of the entire sector. Facebook, one of the advocates of sharing know-how had made a point of publishing its data and allowing journalists and architectural photographers into their own data centers.

Then Google struck back, and its strategy was sophisticated: by not just allowing a newspaper photographer to visit their facilities for a day but instead hiring an architectural photographer, who spent multiple weeks exploring and photographing, Google proved that its data centers were not only transparent, but above all, that they were beautiful.

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ABSTRACT // In recent years, the physical manifestation and infrastructure of the informational age has increasingly drawn the attention both of the popular imagination and of architectural theorists. This paper focuses on an aspect mostly overlooked to date, namely on its artistic representation. It provides a critical analysis of a series of data center photographs published by Google in October 2012 under the name “Where the internet lives”. The photographs are examined as carefully staged constructions of a specific imagination of information technology that, transcending a purely aesthetical or corporate critique, has broad political, socio-geographical and economical implications. A first analysis of their composition, digital manipulation and visual impact situates the images within a recent photographic current of the so called “anthropogenic Sublime”. The paper then zooms out to reframe the photographs as a continuation of the euphoric techno-utopian discourse that surrounded the popular dissemination of the internet in the early nineteen-nineties. This discourse hailed the internet as an inherently moral and emancipatory vehicle that, because of the non-physical nature of cyberspace, would liberate its users from traditional hegemonic dispositifs based on techniques of physical coercion. Tracing the transition from bio-political (Foucault) to noo-political dispositifs (Lazarrato, Deleuze) and discussing the inextricable connection between information technology, territorial conflict and socio-geographic inequality, the article goes on to account for the demise of the dream of a “bodiless and moral internet”. Finally, the data center images are re-read in more detail and discussed as part of the life-support system of a failed utopia - sustaining a popular yet reductionist understanding of the informational society and its key players.

image © Connie Zhou