The Internet is comprised of a vast assemblage of networks combining physical objects and cyberspace; hardware and software. Try to visualize the Internet – where is the beginning? Where is the end? Who (or what) actually receives all of our constant Google searches? Is the Internet just an infinite abundance of memory and data droplets, resistant to evaporation?
The romanticization of the Internet and its capabilities have been developed through different media sources over time, including films like The Social Network, You’ve Got Mail, and even the recent horror film Unfriended. This has facilitated Western society’s continued ignorance of the effects of Internet usage.
Humans often experience the sensation of “natural sublime” when confronting something so enormous that its vastness is unimaginable. This can be experienced while standing on the edge of Niagara Falls as torrents of water rush by every second, thinking about the scale of the universe, observing the visual connections between terrestrial river systems and the human circulatory system – these are only a few examples and they can all make us feel extraordinarily insignificant.
Digital sublime is when you get that same feeling trying to imagine the complexity of technology but are unable to fully grasp it, thus making it difficult to truly understand its scope. Digital sublime also presents distraction through the mirage of sleek design and glittery updates.
This overwhelming infatuation one gets when viewing Apple’s latest keynote, for example, can only begin to be eradicated through a demystification of the technological intricacy involved in the formation of the commodity. This includes knowledge of mining for electronic parts, division of labour, physical products for seemingly intangible services, environmental impacts…the list goes on to include every minute yet necessary detail.
Assemblage – a theory by French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari – explains how any commodity is comprised of various connections between physical and nonphysical; human and nonhuman; and everything in between. The Internet is so much more than just signals travelling between devices. Rather, it is an assemblage of many components working together.
This is a paradigm shift. It is more common to hear about new technological developments in media than the disasters associated with creating those developments. Of course the manufacturers of personal digital devices make this easy with constant operating system updates, app updates, physical design updates, and by proclaiming fresh experiences with each of these improvements through advertising.
In most cases, it is difficult to appreciate the assemblage until something that usually works is suddenly broken. For example, there was an incident where JK Communications and Construction – a cable TV company in the United States – was excavating land and placing their own cables when they happened to dig up foreign cables – those belonging to Internet providers Sprint and Nextel. A few days earlier, there was an environmental disturbance that ruined another part of Internet cable. The way nodes work is that if one node goes offline, the information can be rerouted to another node to ensure service at all times. However, if strategically (or accidentally, in this case) damaged, there could be simultaneous outages. Customers of Sprint and Nextel living on the west coast experienced isolation from the online world until the cables could be fixed. Accidents happen, but it is not until they do that people may realize something bigger is in charge of providing them with the services they know and love.
Google is notorious for its immense and extravagant networked structures. The design of their corporate offices look more like kindergarten playgrounds than traditional Bay Street high rises. The bleaker side of Google lies in its data centres. Data centres are highly protected buildings that contain massive and powerful servers, cables for constant connection, cooling equipment, power generators, and backup mechanisms in case of emergencies. These are made to deliver lightning speed search services to clients around the world. It takes a colossal amount of energy for Google’s algorithm to go through millions of websites and pick out the most relevant ones for the particular user. These data centres are essential for reliability and predictability. They are capable of working in the heat with the aid of cooling devices, notably water. Google is currently re-purposing a coal power plant in Alabama into a new data centre; this location was chosen particularly for its already available resources, including a generous electrical supply and proximity to a water source. Data centres are constantly running and must stay cool in order to prevent overheating. Inside, the centres may become too hot for humans to work in comfortably (around 95˚F), but the machines continue to function properly. Human labour is becoming less critical in the actual computing job of the Internet because the complexity of tasks are exceeding human capabilities.
However, these data centres are only a single component of the Internet despite continually drawing labour from other sectors. Computer engineers are undoubtedly important in keeping things running smoothly, but maintenance workers are also needed to ensure the performance of the cooling systems – without which the computing devices would malfunction. Child labour is also frequently used in the technology industry – both for resource gathering, factory assembling, and electronic waste disposal. These workers are all part of the assemblage of the Internet.
Microsoft gives another example of a data centre built to accommodate growing demands for faster and larger Internet service, but they chose to build their facility underwater. This further abstracts the role of human labour within the Internet’s mechanical assemblage. To solve this, Microsoft has robots to do the work; a maintenance crew is only needed for robotic control. Although the centre is close to shore in case of emergencies, it still poses an inconvenience for human inquiries.
The environmental impacts of these data centres are still largely unknown, but some predictions are that the warmer water released by the centres may impact delicate marine life in the surrounding area. Even if the temperature change is subtle, it can create a chain reaction of corruption. This is something that needs to be surveilled for several decades in order to realize the full impact. If these practices continue, marine life will not be the only thing at risk. Human employment may also suffer from gradual replacement by machines, although new jobs may open for marine biologists and environmental restoration. This cycle continues endlessly.
Apple, Microsoft, Google, and other technology corporations do not blatantly express remorse for their practices. It is only when a harsh truth is unearthed that they go out to bury it with cloudy reassurances, then closely follow up with an avalanche of distractions. It is up to us to monitor the assemblage of digital networks; we must be aware of the storms brewing in the liquid cooling devices of data centres, the exploitative labour practices, and the other numerous components of digital functionality. Break the motherboard open and discover what lies beneath the spectacle.