Data Centers: Investigating Socio-Technological Assemblages of the Cloud (Stockholm Workshop: Nov 30-Dec 1 2017)


Data Centers: Investigating Socio-Technological Assemblages of the Cloud
16-17 November 2017, Stockholm University

Organizer: Dr. Asta Vonderau, Assistant Professor Department of Social Anthropology, Stockholm University 

“Engines of the cloud,” “brain of the beast,” “archives of digital capitalism,” “factories of the 21st century” – these and similar metaphors are frequently used to describe industrial scale data centers, and the “cloud” itself. Data centers are highly securitized buildings, located out of public sight, that hide a fast growing industry for storing and processing data. While most internet users still might not be aware of the actual significance of data centers, IT infrastructure providers and other experts have come to realize the complex entanglements of the data center industry with social life. After a recent data center failure in the UK, for instance, which grounded hundreds of British Airways flights, even industry representatives urged for transparency and for an independent investigation of the incident, stating that “it’s only a matter of time before a data center failure will be associated with human fatalities.” Within the social sciences and the humanities, scholars have discussed data centers in regard to their architectural form, for instance, which has been read as that of digital control society, or by problematizing their energy consumption, profit orientation and low contribution to the local labor market developments.

The workshop brings together scholars from a broad range of disciplines such as anthropology, architecture, media and communication studies, or interaction design who have engaged with data and cloud infrastructures in their academic or artistic work. Taking data centers – a characteristic technological and aesthetic form of the digital era – as its starting point, the workshop aims to discuss the cloud’s social and environmental impact and maps the diverse socio-technical assemblages which emerge in the course of cloud infrastructuring processes. How do the infrastructures of the cloud integrate into local political contexts and industrial landscapes? How do the cloud’s techno-logics relate to the emergence of specific forms of subjectivity, sociality, and urbanity? How can the barely visible and secret industrial spaces of the cloud be made visible and opened up for the broader public? And what does the study of data centers tell us about our current social moment? An interdisciplinary approach will help to grasp and better understand the cloud’s material/virtual, global/local, or human/technological dynamics. A publication of the workshop’s results is planned.

The workshop will be financed by The Swedish Foundation of Humanities and Social Sciences (Riksbankens Jubileumsfond) and is the concluding event of the research project Farming Data Forming the Cloud. The Environmental Impact and Cultural Production of IT Technology (2014-2017).

Tung-Hui Hu (English Language and Literature, Michigan)
Kazys Varnelis (Architecture, Columbia University)
Matt Parker (Sound artist, London)
Emma Charles (Film maker, London)
Alexander Taylor (Anthropology, Cambidge)
Julia Velkova (Media, Södertorn)
Mél Hogan (CMF, Calgary)