Edward Snowden’s revelations in 2013 about the nature of the digital surveillance state opened a floodgate of public debate about unwarranted mass surveillance using big data and metadata. Indeed, the very word "metadata," once the arcane jargon of data jockeys and digital librarians, entered common parlance, thanks to its centrality to arguments over just how meaningful and information-rich such data could be. The subsequent revelations have shown how privacy and freedom are inextricably tethered to discourses of national security which are in turn anchored in large scale, dislocated, material infrastructures. In spite of these close interrelations, such connections frequently remain obscure and hidden away from public view - and understanding.
In this contribution to BD&S, “Data Flows and Water Woes: The Utah Data Center” media scholar Mél Hogan looks specifically at the material infrastructures of the NSA that facilitate such surveillance flows. She argues that these infrastructures monumentalize our priorities, by way of their location, dependence on natural resources and public infrastructures, and impacts on the environment.
In the following paragraphs, digital labour researcher Sarah T. Roberts engages Mél Hogan in a dialogue about the topics raised in her work and discovers why they are so crucial for all of us right now.
Sarah T. Roberts: Your work focuses on data centers and, by extension, the resources they demand and require for their continued operation. Why this topic is so important at this moment?
Mél Hogan: I’d argue that our current era is defined as much by technological advancement as it is by environmental deterioration – natural disasters, climate change, and the anthropocene. I think Big Tech often gets looked to solve environmental problems, with solar and wind technologies for example, or for its capacity to crunch large data sets, to then visualise impacts and predict disasters, etc., but it’s less often looked at for its ecological impacts. Specifically, there’s little attention paid to consumption – as social media, surveillance, communication, or entertainment – which actually cannot be materially supported at today’s data-driven expansion rates. We must seriously consider the implications of rare earth minerals in particular, being primarily depleted for the production of our global communication devices.
And yet Big Tech is constantly boasting of its advancement in terms of renewable energy. So while we may have the impression that data centers are increasingly operating with renewable energy, it remains that that’s only true for a very small fraction of them, the bigger brands like Facebook, Apple and Google. And while these efforts are noteworthy, they downplay problems of consumption writ large and also deflect from the rest of the material infrastructures that support them, such as water and energy sources. In this paper I focus on water use at the NSA Utah Data Center given the importance and urgency of surveillance issues since Snowden, but this is just one site illustrative of a much larger phenomenon.
My interest is in data centers as material, located, and architectural monuments (to capitalism especially). To start off this line of inquiry about the NSA specifically, I coauthored a piece with Tamara Shepherd, published in the Journal of Information Policy contrasting Sealand's counter-surveillance policies with the NSA's Utah Data Center mass surveillance apparatus. We analyzed how control of the physical location of data centers shapes the possibilities of data agency and ownership. We are working on another piece for the Fifth Annual International Symposium on Digital Ethics, in Chicago this year, where we question the ethical implications of the romantic framing used by the NSA to legitimize its mass surveillance activities as contemporary spycraft.
STR. In your article for BD&S, you briefly discuss the ways in which debates and concerns in the public policy realm that focus on digital communications tend to take place in such a way as to negate the material realities of these communication modes. Can you talk about why you think this tendency is prevalent?
MH: I think it’s strategic for Big Tech, including the NSA, to negate the material realities of their infrastructures, that is, unless it can find a way to demonstrate how it is benefiting society, both in terms of renewable energy solutions and (so-called) social innovation (national security, e.g.). Even then, the location of data centers is usually not specified for reasons (given) of access and security.
Big Tech uses public relations and various branding tactics to provide us with detailed information about its green innovative data centers, so as to have industry shape our perceptions of it. In the case of the NSA, which presumably didn’t want to draw any attention to itself in any way, the story is different. Information about that data center came from a hilariously spoofed government website (https://nsa.gov1.info/utah-data-center), news stories about activist tactics to shut off their water supply (and flying an air balloon over the center, adopting the highway leading up to the center, etc.) and, of course, the Snowden archive of documents.
STR: An important theoretical frame that informs your work is that of new materialisms. Could you share a bit of your take on what this perspective means, especially in the context of ICT?
MH: For me, new materialism exists in the realm of very resonant high theory, so the idea was to draw from that to make a conceptual link between larger themes of wastefulness and surveillance, as guiding ideologies. It’s not enough to invoke new materialism simply by stating that water is matter, and that matter matters, but to be able to show with a concrete example that there are striking parallels between the ways in which we fail to consider the environment as exhaustive, and the means by which we feel compelled to trace and track all human activity. The NSA data center’s use of water makes a compelling argument for documenting these side by side, and also for engaging more media scholars in these issues.
STR: What kinds of impact or change would you like to see as a result of the work you (and others) are doing to foreground the material realities of data centers, for one, and other physical infrastructure of ICT?
MH: That’s always an important question. I think, as scholars we tend to think that internet infrastructures are now a well understood component of our communication technologies (by the informed public) and that the mythos of the cloud and of the ephemeral has largely come to an end, but in fact much more work needs to be done to reinstate the materiality of our current communication infrastructures, for a few reasons. One reason, as demonstrated by anti-surveillance activists in the case of the NSA, is that understanding policy in relation to both natural resources and communication infrastructures allows for powerful action and intervention. The reliance of the NSA’s data center on water to cool its servers raises important questions about the ownership of natural resources, while simultaneously drawing attention to unlawful surveillance activities. The water issues are further heightened given that the data center is located in Utah, a drought state, and given the more general concerns about climate change in the US, and globally. Like many scholars and practitioners, such as Jussi Parikka, Myra Hird, Sabine LeBel, Alix Johnson, Andrea Zeffiro, Vicki Mayer, Sean Cubitt, Ingrid Burrington, and others, I want media scholarship to call attention to the ecology we inhabit. I think that right now one of the key projects for us is to document these sites, to map them, and to carefully consider their historical precedents in terms of location, policy, public service, and promotional discourse.
STR: Thanks for talking with me, Mél. It seems that, with this work, you are well on your way to bringing that ecology to the fore.
MH: Thank you!
Mél Hogan is as an Assistant Professor of Communication at IIT in Chicago. She teaches classes on media and the environment, internet materialities, and graphic design. Her current research looks at greening discourses and innovations for server farms and data centers in the US and beyond. She is the director of the Humanities and Technology Speaker Series at IIT, a co-editor of nomorepotlucks.org, and a research design consultant for mat3rial.com. She was also a founding member of the Fembot Collective.