Data Centres, or, Skynet Part 2

Googlepex

Googlepex

Not so long ago I posted about a cybernetic hand already in the late stages of development.

I tried, in that post, to draw the reader’s attention to a strikingly similar hand featured in the Terminator series.

Now another insidious development has come to my attention: data centres.

A friend asked me recently, “How does the internet work?”  It’s a good question; and I had no idea how to answer it.

The truth is, none of us really know: we simply switch on, plug in, and enjoy.  We don’t care how the data stream works, so long as it works.  Like ancients worshipping at a pagan altar, we don’t question: we assume our deity will deliver what we need, be it rain, food, or a constant stream of gigabytes.

The only time we are reminded that machines actually exist, that there are mechanical parts involved in all this, is when something breaks down.  How many of us, for example, have any idea how to fix a car.  Or more pertinently repair a motherboard?  We call the RACV or an IT specialist and take refuge in modernity’s specialisation of labour.  And, if something really is unfixable, we simply throw it away and buy another one (see my recent post on W.A.S.T.E)

But, while we busily forget, our machines grow smarter: as Donnay Harraway says, “Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert.”  And technology, like waste, is becoming increasingly invisible; at least, in terms of functionality

The latest phenomenon (and the future of the internet according to the pundits) is cloud computing.  The cloud (a very apt term) describes the amorphous, unidentifiable, unlocatable aether where all of our information is stored.  You can already sign up with Apple or Microsoft or Google or Amazon or any number of IT giants seeking to muscle in and gain dominance over this lucrative market.   Rather than storing all your data on a physical harddrive, you simply access it from the cloud, or should I say, their cloud.

A Mind Map of the Cloud's Collective Unconscious

A Mind Map of the Cloud

The design of modern computers reflectes this desire to remove or miniaturise functionality.  Think about the shape of an iMac (which most manufacters are now copying) and how it presents itself.  A computer is now essentially a screen; other than keyboard and mouse, those things absolutely necessary for human interface, there is no attendant case or hardware.   Our computers have become, like the internet, all surface.  Like Narcissus, we stare into the water (the screen, the mirror, the pool, the portal) and dream of immersion.

Our relationship to technology has thus become increasinly magical.  Technology hasn’t liberated our rationality; it has liberated us from rationality.  The internet is a form of secular magic.

Which brings me back to data centres.

The reality is that behind the cloud, with its magic, are machines.  Millions upon millions of them.  All sitting in rows, in giant warehouses, or vaults underground,  kept cool by giant wind tunnels which funnel through icy gusts, and powered by enormous 2.5 megawatt generators.  No fluffy white imagery here – just cold, hard machines.

Which is why I get worried when I read something like this:

“It’s like Fight Club,” says Rich Miller, whose Web site, Data Center Knowledge, tracks the industry. “The first rule of data centers is: Don’t talk about data centers.”

And this:

When it comes to a large company like Microsoft, it can be difficult to find out what any given data center is used for. The company, for reasons ranging from security to competitive advantage, won’t provide much in the way of details.

And this:

Data centers worldwide now consume more energy annually than Sweden. And the amount of energy required is growing…From 2000 to 2005, the aggregate electricity use by data centers doubled. The cloud…consumes 1 to 2 percent of the world’s electricity.

If you want to really get the lowdown read the full article by Tom Vanderbilt at the NY Times.

I merely point this out because, as a fervent proponent of crackpot conspiracy theories, I think we have be extremely wary of how closely reality is starting to resembling ‘science fiction’.

Anyone seen the the San Francisco HQ of SKYNET in Terminator: Salvation?  It’s a giant data centre!  The kind run by Google!  The kind which can process a search query in .015 of a second!  The kind that, suddenly, unexpectedly, can attain sentience and turns on its maker with savage fury!

I don’t want to be a panic merchant…but, seriously, RUN FOR THE HILLS!!!!!

It’s also worth having a look at this article by John Markoff & Saul Hansell on Google’s empire of data centres.

“Google has constructed the biggest computer in the world, and it’s a hidden asset,” said Danny Hillis, a supercomputing pioneer and a founder of Applied Minds, a technology consulting firm, referring to the Googleplex.

The biggest computer in the word?  Anyone else afraid?  Or is it just my paranoia?

Is anyone even listenining?  Is anybody out there (out there… out there…)?

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2 Comments

Filed under Film, Random

2 responses to “Data Centres, or, Skynet Part 2

  1. penguinseesaw

    If ‘cloud’ is truly an appropriate analogy, then you should be more concerned about the implied:
    * tropical DATETIME-format storms
    * ABORT, RETRY, FAIL? lightning
    * recursive algorithm tornados
    * slow-moving, low-pressure syntax error fronts

  2. penguinseesaw

    Scientists Worry Machines May Outsmart Man (New York Times): http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/26/science/26robot.html

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