Repercussions of Amassed Data

by wsampson

I had the pleasure of meeting Mél Hogan while she was doing her postdoctoral work at CU Boulder. I think her research area is vital, though it’s difficult to summarize. But that won’t stop me, so here goes: investigating how one can “account for the ways in which the perceived immateriality and weightlessness of our data is in fact with immense humanistic, environmental, political, and ethical repercussions” (The Archive as Dumpster).

Data flows and water woes: The Utah Data Center is a good entry point for this line of inquiry. The article explores the above quoted concerns (humanistic, environmental, political, and ethical) at the NSA’s Utah Data Center, near Bluffdale. It has suffered outages and other operational setbacks since construction. These initial failures are themselves illuminating, but even assuming such disruptions are minimized in the future, the following excerpt clarifies a few of the material constraints of the effort:

Once restored, the expected yearly maintenance bill, including water, is to be $20 million (Berkes, 2013). According to The Salt Lake Tribune, Bluffdale struck a deal with the NSA, which remains in effect until 2021; the city sold water at rates below the state average in exchange for the promise of economic growth that the new waterlines paid for by the NSA would purportedly bring to the area (Carlisle, 2014; McMillan, 2014). The volume of water required to propel the surveillance machine also invariably points to the center’s infrastructural precarity. Not only is this kind of water consumption unsustainable, but the NSA’s dependence on it renders its facilities vulnerable at a juncture at which the digital, ephemeral, and cloud-like qualities are literally brought back down to earth. Because the Utah Data Center plans to draw on water provided by the Jordan Valley River Conservancy District, activists hope that a state law can be passed banning this partnership (Wolverton, 2014), thus disabling the center’s activities.

As hinted at in a previous post on Lanier, I often encounter a sort of breathlessness invoked when descriptions of cloud-based reserves of data and computational prowess are discussed. Reflecting on the material conditions of these operations, as well as their inevitable failures and inefficiencies (e.g. the apparently beleaguered Twitter archive at the Library of Congress, though I would be more interested in learning about the constraints and stratagems of private operations) is a wise counterbalance that can help refocus discussions on the humanistic repercussions of such operations. And to be sure, I would not exclude archives from that scrutiny.