Organised by Leman Çelik, Stefan Laser, Estrid Sørensen and Lynn Werner
Zoom link to join the meetings
The past years, we have seen fascinating and important studies coming up in Critical Data Studies, Media Studies and Science & Technology Studies on data centres and their oftentimes destructive environmental impacts due to vast energy and water consumption. We have also seen important studies on data practices in science, and how the value of data changes in research and reshapes scientific knowledge production. However, rarely are studies of data centres and attention to planetary resources brought together with research on scientific knowledge production and scientific data practices. What are the material impacts of scientific data practices on the planet? In what ways are data centres related to planetary resources and scientific knowledge production? How can we think about IT infrastructures as both epistemic and planetary? How do we as scholars deal with and conceptualise our knowledge production as a material and planetary factor?
In this online workshop series, we have gathered key scholars of the three fields for short, intense, and frequent discussions on planetary resources, data centres and scientific knowledge production. Over three weeks, we will meet online every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 16 hrs CET to share concerns, ideas, concepts, empirical findings, political statements, and good laughs.
You can join the discussions as fits your interests and availability. No need to pre-register, just show up! Thinking together keeps us warm in the energy crisis.
Mél Hogan – Data Promises | February 20th, 4-5 pm CET | Zoom link
Building from years of research into data centers and the cloud, as well as explorations into emergent alternatives to energy- and water -intensive infrastructures that power the internet (and increasingly AI and VR, too), I’d like to use “data promises” as a provocation for discussion. Ideally, we would come together as a group to make a list of the promises that data (writ large) offers – data as the new oil, the new currency, the new bacon. I have formulated a few preliminary (yet rough) categories, such as: value, prediction, fidelity, memory, reward, and self-governance (autonomy), that we can use as a springboard for our conversation. The point of this is to build and share common ground about what is often assumed, but not explicitly said, about our global hyperinvestments in data – as concept, application, and lifestyle. Each category will be measured up against its environmental costs, considerations and impacts.
David Ribes – Generating More and Less Data & Specimens in AIDS and Ecological Science | February 22nd, 4-5 pm CET | Zoom link
This talk will explore taking a symmetrical analytical stance to planetary resources, such as water, energy, data & specimens. Approached as the consumption of planetary resources, archiving of scientific-ecological materials, such as data&specimens, is always a detriment to the planet, consuming it bit by bit, perhaps forever. But approached more symmetrically, that is, data&specimens as themselves a new planetary resource, these materials can instead be weighed as contributing to valuing the planet.
Possible background reading:
Hirsch, S. L., Ribes, D. & Inman, S. (2022). Sedimentary legacy and the disturbing recurrence of the human in long-term ecological research. Social Studies of Science 52(4), 561-580.
Jenna Burrell – On half-built Assemblages: Waiting for a Data Denter in Prineville, Oregon | February 24th, 4-5 pm CET | Zoom link
In 2010 the mega-corporation Facebook finalized an agreement to build a massive data center in Prineville, a small town in central Oregon previously known for logging, cattle ranching, and as the headquarters of the Les Schwab tire company. This was a largely unanticipated event that local leaders nonetheless prepared for several decades before when they designated a rural economic zone on the outskirts of town. This talk describes the preparatory efforts that laid the groundwork for the data center as effecting a “half-built assemblage.” I will also draw out the relationship of the data center to the environment, how locals versus Facebook talked about the environment and sustainability concerns, and how we might be able to measure and make sense of rising consumption of energy by data centers like the one in Prineville.
Sebastián Lehuedé – Mobilising Water: Elemental Resistance Against Terricidal Technologies | February 27th, 4-5 pm CET | Zoom link
The complicity of digital technologies with the terricide is prompting the rise of activism by communities directly affected by this situation. Compared to other forms of technology activism, these groups are undertaking an elemental form of resistance, i.e., politicising the constituent parts, including the substances and substrates, that make up both the environment and digital technologies. Both vital and mobilising, elemental resistance is opening a new horizon in the struggle for digital rights. Based on fieldwork conducted in Chile, this presentation discusses the mobilisation of water in the struggle of Lickan Antay Indigenous groups against lithium extraction in the Atacama Desert and of neighbours opposing the construction of a Google data centre in Santiago.
Possible background reading:
Constance Carr, Karinne Madron – The Janus-face of Urbanism Led by Large Digital Corporations: Glamorous Headquarters and Monstrous Data Centers | March 1st, 4-5 pm CET | Zoom link
Inspired by the digital turn in urban studies (Ash et al., 2016), the aim of our overarching project (Carr, 2021) is to examine and explain how large digital corporations (LDCs) such as Amazon or Google influence urban governance and development. With qualitative research methods, DIGI-GOV focuses on seven urban areas that are confronted with LDCs in one way or another: Arlington/Alexandria, Seattle, Toronto, Amsterdam, Groningen, Luxembourg and Kyiv. So far, there appears to be two faces to this form of urban development. One is the flashy, symbolic, spaces that receive massive media attention, such as Quayside in Toronto or HQ2 in Arlington. The second is the less attractive, less talked about, infrastructural encroachment of data centers, such as Google’s data center projects in the Netherlands where data centers have become particularly controversial in recent years. There, while the metaphor ‘cloud’ has for a long time perpetuated the notion of immaterial data storages and diverted attention away from the reality of resource-hungry data centers that LDCs are building (Bast et al., 2022), this hidden face of LDCs is confronting more and more backlash from communities which experience the negative impacts of their presence (Rone, 2023). These processes demonstrate a shift in the ways that affected cities are organized, built and managed. While urban studies literature has paid considerable attention to the ways that LDCs reshape urban space (Zukin, 2020), the gaps in knowledge regarding their influence have also been called out (Mc Neill, 2021). DIGI-GOV addresses these gaps and aims to expose new challenges in respect to digital cities posed by LDCs.
Ash, J., Kitchin, R., Leszcznski, M. (2016) Digital turn, digital geographies? Progress in Human Geography, 42:1, 25-43.
Bast, D., Carr, C., Madron, K., & Syrus, A. (2022) Four reasons why data centers matter, five implications of their social spatial distribution, one graphic to visualize them. Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space, 54(3), 441-445.
Carr, C. (2021) Digital urban development – How large digital corporations shape the field of urban governance (DIGI-GOV), Project Summary. https://orbilu.uni.lu/bitstream/10993/45932/1/ DIGIGOV%20Brochure%20January%202021.pdf.
McNeill, D. (2021) Urban geography 1: ‘Big tech’ and the reshaping of urban space. Progress In Human Geography, 45(5), 1311-1319.
Rone, J. (2023) The shape of the cloud: Contesting date centre construction in North Holland. New Media & Society, 146144482211459.
Zukin S (2020) Planetary Silicon Valley: deconstructing New York’s innovation complex. Urban Studies 58(1): 3–35.
Sabina Leonelli – The Conceptual Architecture of Data Sustainability: Examples from Crop Science | March 3rd, 4-5 pm CET | Zoom link
While the environmental sustainability of data centres is widely discussed as a potential problem for research and for the planet, the environmental risks of organising data in specific ways – through conceptual architectures which admit only specific interpretations – keeps being underestimated, at least in part thanks to the hype around data being infinitely re-usable as long as they are stored and accessed effectively. Using examples from data sharing initiatives in crop science, I will argue that taking the semantic structures of databases seriously is an integral part of addressing concerns around the environmental sustainability of scientific data work.
Possible background reading:
Anne Pasek – Digital Climate Entanglements: From Phatic to DIY Data Infrastructures | March 6th, 4-5 pm CET | Zoom link
This essay examines how many scholars—including myself—are thinking and feeling about growing concerns about the climate impacts of digital networks. Whether in news headlines, civil society reports, or peer presentations, we increasingly encounter alarming figures that link streaming video and cloud storage practices with a potential carbon time bomb. As a result, an eclectic range of personal behaviours have blossomed that seek to acknowledge and respond to these potential harms, including digital land acknowledgements, low-res aesthetics, conspicuous non-consumption, and media arts attempts to prefigure greener futures online. These digital environmental actors may lack a clear account of the relative impacts of a given gesture, but are nevertheless motivated by a strong sense of urgency and responsibility to modify the means by which they communicate online.
I have been both a scholar of, and participant in, this panoply of low-carbon digital experiments. In tracing how my thinking has evolved, I seek to provide a self-reflexive assessment of what—exactly—we might be responding to through these practices and what the role of climate anxiety is or should be in guiding such efforts. While remaining sympathetic to these behavioural shifts, I explore how an emphasis on discrete actions could risk misapprehending the material character of the digital systems we seek to change, overattributing both responsibility and agency to users. I conclude with some evolving criteria for assessing the environmental impacts of digital networks, as well as personal reflections on how the hermeneutics and practices of infrastructural care provides a productive alternative for thinking and action on the issue.
Possible background reading:
Pasek, A.: On Being Anxious About Digital Carbon Emissions.
Julia Velkova – Greening the Cloud: Big Tech wind parks, colonial politics and “affected” publics in Sweden | March 10th, 4-5 pm CET | Zoom link
Criticism towards the carbon emissions and energy intensity of data centers prompted Big Tech corporations in recent years to contract large amounts of electricity produced by industrial wind power plants. In Sweden and Norway, such contracts have enabled and justified economically the construction of some larger wind power plants, but also encroached indigenous Sami reindeer herding lands. In this talk I discuss the politics of producing “the green cloud” through the interrelated governance of wind and Indigenous Sami land in Sweden. Drawing on fieldwork from a Google-enabled wind park in the county of Jämtland in Sweden, I describe how these politics operate through an assemblage of new scientific models, local development plans, court cases and multiple understandings of “affected publics” through which multiple version of colonial politics — internal-, indigenous- and data- colonialism — are practiced and extended.
James Maguire – Eco-Tech Imaginaries: Data, Resources, and Future Colonialisms| March 13th, 4-5 pm CET | Zoom link
While the centrality of data and digital infrastructures – not to say computation more broadly – are becoming more acknowledged within anthropological and STS thinking on climate futures, the forms and connectivities between these infrastructures and the futures they imply remain somewhat underarticulated. This talk positions itself within this space by describing the work of a bio-tech data collective, Grow Your Own Cloud (GYOC). Responding to the call for more localised, collectivised, and sustainable digital infrastructures, this group have produced a series of speculative prototypes that chart the design pathways for storing data in DNA (plants, flowers, forests).
The talk explores the role of speculative methodologies in imagining more desirable climate futures while critically engaging with the ethical implications of such work. The talk argues that these eco-tech visions of integrating nature and technology in new, and climate friendly, ways problematically reproduce some of the central tenets of colonialism’s extractivist resource logics. Rather than a drive to change the structures of the data economy – and the range of discriminatory and predatory practices it facilitates – such prototypes allow a particular form of gaze that continues to see “solutions” to “problems” through the same troubled optics of colonizing and extraction. The paper ends with a mediation on how to extract ourselves from some of the more fossilized logics at the heart of transition thinking.
The running online workshop series is organised in collaboration between the Collaborative Research Centre “Virtual Lifeworlds”, the research project “Virtual Infrastructures” and the RUST-lab at the Ruhr-University Bochum by Leman Çelik, Stefan Laser, Estrid Sørensen and Lynn Werner.