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Automated Repair and Back-Up Systems

Lookup NU author(s): Professor Stephen Graham


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0 0 1 1519 8661 Newcastle University 72 20 10160 14.0 In the summer of 2004 a vast, squat and anonymous building was completed next to Highway 71 on the edge of the unprepossessing Mid-Western US town of Jane, Missouri. Apart from the compete lack of usual corporate signage and iconography, this 133,000 square foot was indistinguishable from the countless other suburban distribution centres that now spring up in the vague margins between urbanity and rurality that encircle the world’s towns and cities. “There is nothing about the building to give even a hint that Wal-Mart owns it,” writes Max McCoy for the Joplin Globe. “Despite the glimpses through the fence of manicured grass and carefully placed trees, the overall impression is that this is a secure site that could withstand just about anything.” The centre is deliberately placed on solid bedrock and is designed to withstand powerful local thunderstorms, earthquakes and terrorist attacks. “Earth is packed against the sides,” continues McCoy. ”The green roof - meant, perhaps, to blend into the surrounding Ozarks hills - bristles with dish antennae. On one of the heavy steel gates at the guardhouse is a notice that visitors must use the intercom for assistance.” Rather than being concerned with orchestrating continuous streams of physically-transported goods and products, this centre is at the heart of an equally vital but much more invisible complex: the orchestration of continuous digital data flow. For the Highway 71 complex is the epicentre of Wal-Mart’s global architecture of data traffic – an assemblage developed specifically to make sure that the 100 million or so apparently mundane digital transactions, communications and surveillance events that sustain the world’s biggest retailer each day, carry on, relentlessly, no matter what extreme events, malfunctions, or acts of political violence target the firm’s operations. The center concentrates, and backs-up, all data captured across the firm’s stores and transactions, worldwide. This process allows sophisticated data mining software to predict market trends so allowing the global chains of production and distribution to synchronise as near as possible with changing market geographies as they play out. As Hurricane Frances bore down on Florida in Summer 2004, for example, Wal-Mart’s data mining centre quickly analysed changing consumption patterns from previous events. It was predicted that local stores would need a range of certain products in large quantities beyond the obvious torches and candles. "We didn't know in the past that strawberry Pop-Tarts increase in sales, like seven times their normal sales rate, ahead of a hurricane," Ms. Dillman, Wal-Mart's chief information officer, said in a New York Times interview at the time. "And the pre-hurricane top-selling item was beer." Thanks to those analyses, large loads of these items were soon speeding down towards Wal-Mart stores in the path of the hurricane. Wal-Mart’s is only the largest and most spectacular of a whole new field of stealth data-centre architecture – what London architecture critic Martin Pawley called ‘terminal architecture’ in a book of the same name. Such buildings are springing up in the most unlikely locations, presenting a whole incipient geography of back-up and repair spread across the world. Around the hearts of global finance centres like London and New York, for example, bunker-like business continuity centres cluster, ready to go into operation to support corporate data flows and archives whenever the main corporate headquarters and electronic trading floors face disruptions of any kind. Districts adjacent to the main corporate and financial downtowns, like London Docklands or New Jersey, are now chock full of such fortified centres, and the specialised firms that operate them now constitute an important economic sector in their own right. In the downtown cores, meanwhile, disused and obsolescent modernist tower blocks have had their windows blacked-out as they are converted into so-called ‘telecom hotels’. Such complexes house web servers and major digital switching systems and connect directly to the planet’s optic fibre grids. They allow the world’s major communications providers to serve the world’s major metropolitan markets cheaply, efficiently, and with minimum vulnerability to disruption. Far away from the world’s main metropolitan hubs, meanwhile, the world’s nooks and crannies – from disused ballistic missile silos, to closed-down salt mines, and rusting anti-aircraft forts – are being turned into data back up and storage centres. Such spaces offer ultra-secure data archiving and back-up facilities, using the accumulated regolith of military architecture abandoned since the end of the 20th century. To this list we should also add, of course, the burgeoning data and surveillance centres of national-security states, emboldened by the rapidly extending ‘national security’ capabilities as a result of the ‘war on terror’. In such complexes, the commercial innovations of data mining, communication tracking, and profiling are now mutating into new assemblages for (attempted) social and political control. Often, such operations blur troublingly with operations like Wal-Mart’s. For the very commercial firms who specialise in such tasks for corporate clients are taking up the mantle of national security data mining, as they colonise the contracting opportunities left by privatised and neoliberal states. Finally, all of the world’s major telecommunications operators now operate their own large scale bunker complexes. These are designed to allow for the automatic or near-automatic repair of the world’s data and communications networks, in the event of catastrophic events like the 9/11 attacks on Manhattan, or the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. With their room-size digital world maps displaying real-time events, and tiered ranks of operators, such bunkers are reminiscent of the Cold War nuclear weapons control rooms portrayed so memorably in classic Cold War films like Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, rather than sites to manage the more mundane threats of teller machines, mobile phones, supermarket check-outs, gas pumps, or Internet computers displaying ‘network unavailable’ signs. In a digitised, globalised, and 24-hour economy, the absolute imperative, amidst all others, is continuity of digital connection and service. For e-commerce firms, digital financial service corporations, global logistics and transport systems, call centres, and international information and consumer data companies, continuous digital data flow and archiving are, very literally, the only possible means of operation. The costs when such digital flows are disrupted because of technical malfunction, ‘natural’ catastrophes, or political violence, quickly lead to the very erasure of these firms. Neil Stephenson, CEO of the Onyx Group – a major provider of business continuity centres – commented in 2006 that, according to statistics produced by the UK Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, “80% of businesses affected by a major incident [which disrupts their digital operations or erases their data base archives} close within 18 months.” It is not surprising, then, that in the world’s interstitial economic geographies, and the remote or bunkered nooks and crannies left abandoned after the Cold War, a new brand of stealthy yet anonymous architecture is mushrooming. So anonymous are such buildings that they remain far from visible – unknown to all but a few hackers, urban explorers, hardened enthusiasts or researchers or the urban esoteric. But such built architectures of data backup and digital repair remain much more manifest than their vital, digital shadow. For such centres and buildings do an even more powerful job of hiding the data infrastructures of fibres, servers, and software that link them together. Most invisible of all is a growing universe of software that automatically detects, diagnoses and attempts to repair interruptions to flow and connectivity within transnational data systems, routing traffic away from failing nodes within the Internet’s famous ‘packet-switching’ architecture, and backing up data records in the most secure sites on transnational networks of data centres. Not to be forgotten, also, are the massive electrical and air conditioning systems -- usually with one or two back-ups in case of power failures -- which sustain both the built data centres and the power-hungry server architectures that they house. Together, these built and digital spaces and systems constitute what we might call the global assemblage of digital flow. Here we confront perhaps the most crucial infrastructure of globalisation: the pervasive digital skein of communications systems that continuously works to bring the global digital economy, and its physical mobilities and flows, into apparently magical being. And yet, like all true infrastructures, the invisibility of global data systems in everyday life means that they are only really noticed –-- and then fleetingly -- when they ceases to function. At such moments, the constant calculative background sustaining global, digital capitalism, is momentarily interrupted until the reinstatement occurs and the digital assemblages can sink back into the background Such a perspective has clear analytical implications. It means that it is best to see the so-called ‘network’ or ‘information society’ not as some extraterrestrial impactor magically transforming cities and societies in its wake -- as if from outer space. Rather, our perspective should stress that such transformations are the result of new systems, built spaces , digital architectures and practices being brought into being and sunk anonymously, and often invisibly, into the places of the world. If we were to pay more attention to the mundane infrastructures, landscapes and assemblages involved, and the ways in which they quite literally surround and sustain our everyday lives, we might be less likely to wrap these transformations in the hype of utopia, or dystopia, with all the unhelpful gloss that emerges when this happens.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Graham S

Editor(s): Thrift, N; Ticknell, A; Wollgar, S; Rupp, WH;

Publication type: Book Chapter

Publication status: Published

Book Title: Globalization in Practice

Year: 2014

Print publication date: 26/06/2014

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Place Published: Oxford, UK


Library holdings: Search Newcastle University Library for this item

ISBN: 9780199212637