Doreen Mende

The Rack, the Worker and the Submarine

The geolocation data of – the digital working platform attached to RCPP's installation for the exhibition Hailweed at Auto Italia in London – is in California. One of the addresses of the website’s server, detected by, is 8411 Market St, San Francisco, CA 94103, USA, that is listed together with the Internet Service Provider (ISP) called Digital Ocean Inc. According to Wikipedia, the corporation has its headquarters in New York, , and ‘possesses data centers worldwide.’ The corporation offers ‘a Community resource, which provides developer-to-developer forums and tutorials on open source and sysadmin [system administrator] topics,’ plus an ‘education program that aims to bring free developer tools to students.’ I will come back to the ‘digital ocean’ in a moment, not as a company’s brand that offers cloud computing, but rather as a name, which hints at the profound shift that has taken place in the politics of in/visibility in times when algorithms perform the circulation of data. First, however, circulation of what? What do algorithms circulate in the form of data? Tools for students? Direct trade for digital natives? Knowledge from developer to developer encoded into numbers? Or capital that, as we know, includes its social and cultural versions? What exactly circulates here – this question seems to be at the economic-political core of our investigation. How can we think of the entity called ‘data’ in an era, when ‘globalization takes place only in capital and data? Everything is damage control. Information command has ruined knowing and reading’ as Gayatri Spivak begins her book Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization.

Data cannot be separated from capital because data hides that which has been digitized to the degree of perfection = absolute abstraction. Data is a 'substance' that travels on the high-speed of light. Data-formats expire with each update of computer software, so that they are constantly written differently. It is subject to the danger of a moment that may destroy history within micro-seconds, as the Head of Solutions of the Safe Host Data Center in Geneva explained to us during our visit at the corporation’s colocation center SH1 in Geneva, Chemin du Pré-Fleuri 20. Colocation has been unfamiliar to me until reading the term on the brochures of Safe Host. At first, I thought, ‘colocation’ was a typo. The auto-correction of my word-program always turns ‘colocation’ into ‘collocation’ which situates the term in an entirely different field of linguistics (and one which merits further investigation). In French (the first language in Geneva), ‘colocation’ means ‘shared house.’ The translation comes closer to the economic condition of the data-center where slots and lots are rented out to corporate companies as if they were tenants of a multi-storey dwelling. Soon, however, the rent-rates of the circa 10.000 tenants of Safe Host might not be calculated by square meter anymore, but entirely by the rate of energy consumption that the cooling system for the racks, the trunk-thick bundles of electricity cables for power supply and special fiberglass cables for the data roaming constantly needs. The Data Center in the industrial district of Geneva operates from a privatized ground under the national law of Switzerland, which also allows the erection of an extra-territorial and extra-political zone similar to the twisted juridical conditions of a Freeport. Here, ‘colocation’ means to accommodate data under the conditions of SafeSuite, SafeRack, SafeMove, SafeClean, and Inside Eyes – all registered trademarks of the Safe Host Data Center that promotes itself through the condition of ‘political stability.’ If a foreign government wants to make business with the Center, it will need to go through diplomatic channels orchestrated by the Swiss Embassy. Before negotiating with the Center, a ‘politically exposed person’ (PEP), for example Edward Snowden, will need to pass the test for ‘political stability’– and he will fail. Because, ‘data is more dangerous than money’ as we learned during the generous Data Center tour.

The thing with the Data Center is that it does not host data in the analog sense as we imagine applies to the storage of image-prints, books, seminar-notes, diary entries, or bank statements. The Data Center’s main operation is ‘instant archiving’, the permanent processing of data units, that creates a ‘reference copy’ or ‘original copy’ or ‘backup copy’ or, in other words a copy in time. Re-generating data is the permanent condition of ‘instant archiving’. Only a long blackout can sabotage the traceability of the copying process. Data is not stored, instead, data permanently flows in and out the rack, which is the material location of the server that only enables the permanent copying in time, overwriting, distributing and circulating of the data. The rack enables the de-centralising process of archiving as long as the rack has power and electricity; the energy consumption of the SH1-building on Chemin du Pré-Fleuri 20 could power the 18.000 inhabitants of the neighboring Nyon; in case of emergency, six back-up diesel generators will take over automatically in a matter of seconds (with an Uninterruptible Power Supply buffer). The geolocation data for lists various addresses. Three of them create a remarkable triangle: unsurprisingly, one is the SH1 Data Center location in Geneva; furthermore Seestrasse 43 in Eich points in to the shore of the Sempachersee near Zug (which appears to be a major data geolocation in Switzerland, but invisible from the outside); and another geolocation points to Avenue Louis Aubert 6, Geneva’s expensive city center where a building of Cité Universitaire De Genève is located.

Perhaps the most urgent economic-political question is not only what data exactly is – it might change its forms and materializations as it travels; it might become obsolete in the moment of a system-update – but, rather, where data takes place and what kind of spatiality the data’s traveling does produce. This does not call for a new localism. Instead, it calls for a spatiality, both of vertical and horizontal assemblages, that is more like a composite of many layers: electricity, water as well as de-/codification, de-/cryptification, distance and proximity, labour conditions, and the law. That means, a locality is not a locality anymore; perhaps, the rack’s de-centralising integral force turns a locality into an entity of many tentacles with no detectable head anymore, but one where each tentacle can potentially develop a head to operate the business.

In consequence, a composite of many layers creates a floating subject, who navigates without a map across layers as we can see in Harun Farocki’s second part of Parallel (2012-14), when the skater leaves the demo area of a computer game and falls into an invisible hole in the woods, falling off the calculated ground into a dark matter where he floats and floats and floats; the floating subject also appears in the dreaming of Hito Steyerl (see her essay “Duty-Free Art”) when she meets the astronaut Peter Osborne, with whom she observes the phenomenon of contemporary art becoming a proxy (server) where time and space is smashed into a “freak particle accelerator”, reclaiming space in the floating form of 3D diagrams. We are only now beginning to understand what the implosion of locality means politically, if we can agree that locality has served as the only possible ground for politics being strictly confined by time and space in militant struggles of the 20th century. Data processing operates on de-centralising conditions – the copy in time needs to travel in order to meet the many versions of ‘safes’ that are orchestrated by data centers – in which the rack as the stable and secure entity operates the actual locality towards a permanently virtual force; the rack’s de-localising operations demand we re-think where the political in the 21st century takes place. The emergence of politics is not defined by the actual presence of the body at one single locality anymore, but by the human/non-human mechanisms that operate the connectivity of the shore of Sempachersee somewhere in the Swiss countryside with the submarine space of the Atlantic Ocean. ‘Digital Ocean’. The name of the ISP carries the signifying weight to point us to the profound shift in global transport infrastructures: If transport on global scale in the 20th century took the form of container ships moving slowly on the ocean ‘through which 90% of the world's cargo now passes’ (Allan Sekula and Noel Burch), then an increasing amount of global commerce in the 21st century takes place in the form of data via high speed, massive cables of special fiber glass material, undetectable to the human eye, that linger, submarine, on the ocean’s ground, sticking out somewhere at the Atlantic’s shore like remnants of industrial modernity. Where are the workers? Nicole Starosielski proposes in The Undersea Network, that the worker has not disappeared. Only, he sits in front of the screen, off-shored, with a teapot in his right hand and a phone in his left hand. Most of the time, he seems to walk with his phone around the Center. His task is to oversee the infrastructures, which look like enormously piled cable-bundles on the ceiling, as if they were the actual tenants of the colocation. His phone permanently receives messages from an alarm-warning software system that sends a message in case of change. 28°C already is slightly too warm. The data-worker operates in a permanent state of alarm, re-generated in real time several times per minute. Here, the implosion of locality means an abstract set of tasks, and the invisibility of both the work place and the object of labour.

Thanks to Vera Tollmann of RCPP, and the 2015/16-students of the Research-Based Master Program CCC at HEAD Geneva for creating a group turbulence at the Portes Francs Genève during our walk-in on March 10, 2016; and for organizing a visit to the Safe Host Data Center / SH1, that took place on May 25, 2016.