Fieldwork in data centres photo award

Friday, 4 August, 2017 - 09:30
Alexander Taylor - There are People in the Cloud

Alexander Taylor (PhD Social Anthropology 2014) awarded first prize in the Division of Anthropology’s graduate photography competition.

Starting in 2013, the Division of Anthropology decided to run a competition for graduate students to showcase their fieldwork photographs. Each student is able to submit up to three photographs along with a short narrative of their fieldwork. As well as the judging being based on the quality and content of photographs, special consideration is given to images which convey a strong sense of human life and experience in the setting depicted.

This year’s first prize was awarded to Fitzwilliam College PhD student Alexander Taylor (Social Anthropology 2014) for his ‘Fieldwork in Data Centres’ photo submissions.

The judges, Professor Dame Caroline Humphrey FBA, Dr Matei Candea and Dr Yael Navaro, noted how Alexander’s entry “breaks new ground both conceptually and visually, and the interaction between the two aspects is a particular strength. It maps new areas of anthropological research, matching them with innovative visual geometries. The images, beautiful in themselves, yet unlikely as ‘fieldwork photos’, enable us to visualise an alternative kind of anthropology.”

There are People in the Cloud

A recurring feature in images and imaginaries of the data centre is the complete absence of human beings. The top cause of data centre ‘downtime’ is human error so the less human these buildings can be made to look, the more safe and secure they supposedly appear. Photographs of depopulated datacentrescapes, spread through the mass media, conjure fantasies fears and futures of nonhuman automation. These persistent representational strategies invisibilise not only the people in the cloud but also their labour. Unlike the widely-circulated images of fluorescent emptiness may lead viewers to imagine, these machine-architectures are not devoid of people, in fact, there are bits of all of us stored inside them.

The Server-cabineted Corridor

The most frequently encountered representation of data centres today is no doubt the image of the server cabineted-corridor. It is on the endlessly flickering servers locked behind these perforated steel security doors that data from people all over the world is stored, managed and distributed. A low angle shot is often used, transforming the server cabinets into sublime, giant monoliths while the symmetrical geometries of the cabinets combine with the single-point perspective to suck the viewer’s gaze into a vortex-like vanishing point.

A World of White Space

‘White space’ is a term used in the data centre industry to describe usable space that is available for future data and IT equipment. Optimisation of white space is a key part of data centre design as the ability to expand computing capacity is essential to ensuring long-term business growth. The vast and startling whiteness, reminiscent of the training simulation sequences in The Matrix, reflects not only the future-orientated temporalities of cloud infrastructure but also the logics of excess, preparedness, resilience, redundancy and contingency that underpin these ‘future-proofed’ architectures. The hard, metallic and impregnable surfaces of this distinctly un-cloudlike material infrastructure are protective revetments or shields against the various signals, transmissions, frequencies and electric fields emitted by electro-digital technologies from within and without the fortified facility.

See the rest of this year’s photographic entries here >>

Read more about Alexander’s research in this year’s issue of Optima >>