Crucial nodes designed to be ignored
By Aude Launay
In the future, our bilateral relations with Google will be just as important as those we have with Greece“ 1 declared Anders Samuelsen, Denmark’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, at the closing of the quite troubled first month of 2017.
Despite the fact that opening a text with the phrase “in the future“ is funny, this statement has the quality of a truism and, above all, it hit the headlines bringing back to light the term “TechPlomacy”. How strange it is that such an accurate portmanteau hasn’t yet found its way as the ultimate buzzword, because that’s exactly what it is about, after all. Just like oil trade used to run the debates at the core of international relationships, now that tech companies are ranking at the top of the world’s most valuable companies, this oxymoron had to be unveiled. It’s henceforth the dependency and reliance of states on Silicon Valley products that is at stake.
Welcoming the setting up of data centers on its territory has become for the chosen country the equivalent of the establishment of factories in the 20th century, due to the outrageous economic weight they represent in terms of power, water supply and global physical investment on the territory, nonetheless with a way more modest workforce. And as our Danish Minister usefully reminds us, “some [of these companies] also have a size that is comparable to nations“. 2
If those massive brick later steal buildings that signaled the advent of the industrial park in the suburban landscape haven’t been subject to a specifically intense interest per se, data centers tend to appear wreathed in mystery, which makes them a recent topic of interest for researchers in diverse fields. While some of them are heavily branded by the companies that use them (Facebook welcomed journalists into its gigantic Swedish facility, its CEO himself posting pictures of it on his profile while Google produced a 360° video of a guided tour of its data center in Oregon), others rather resemble well-guarded secrets, sorry, buildings. We could surely say that Ingrid Burrington started to look at them more closely as a natural continuation of the curiosity about the physicality of the Internet she’s been developing in her artistic practice for already something like seven years now, and it would be fine. But the specificity of her perspective lies in the way she conducts her research: she’s not a studio artist mainly looking at the Internet from the Internet, she frequently hits the road to investigate on-site the object of her interest: the Internet’s infrastructure. Then she writes articles about it.
One of her primary concerns is the economic bond that ties defense and surveillance to private companies. And it’s while exploring the places that embody surveillance, and in particular the NSA headquarters area, that she learnt about what was to become one of her fetish companies: Corporate Office Properties Trust, a real-estate agency specialized in offices for defense contractors and data center properties. In order to delineate the history of this increasing privatization of the military-industrial complex, Ingrid Burrington began to examine satellite imagery published by the US Geological Survey and to compare the images over time. A whole series of works, titled Reconnaissance, emerged from that process. Moncks Corner is one of them.
Moncks Corner, South Carolina, houses a Google data center about which very few details have been disclosed so far: its construction was announced in 2006-07, and its extension in 2013. Although the Alphabet subsidiary now proudly displays full screen pictures of its facilities, these very vague dates are all we’ll learn about its installation on the site.
The Reconnaissance works are all made of two images, each from a different moment in time, combined in a lenticular print, square in the way Landsat views appear when they’re browsed and uploaded, but also as the tiles that compose most of the web maps nowadays, seemingly ordering Earth’s territory by precomputing it in parcels just as meridians and parallels were defined to rationalize it. In Moncks Corner, Burrington melts a view from 2006 with one from 2016. What do they show?
First, a somewhat deserted rectangle in a seemingly dry area, then the same rectangle filled with a bunch of rectangle buildings surrounded by lush greenery.
Nothing exciting from above, nothing much more engaging for the curious folks who would try the Google Street View option, for instance. Crucial nodes of the global network through which our communications travel every day are decidedly discreet. More so, in the artist’s words, “they’re designed to be ignored“. Why?
Not only to secure their users’ emails and privacy, but mainly because communication networks “have been weaponized, militarized“ 3 by governments. Which is nothing new or, at least, has an entire history leading up to this situation. Let’s not forget that the highways which allowed for the setting up of these data centers 4 in suburban zones as much as the aerial imagery based on orbiting satellites and the GPS technology itself have all been originally developed for military purposes.
“More than any other big tech company, Google has really normalized the satellite image vantage point to the average consumer without military clearance,” adds Burrington.
The thing is, Google Earth “create[s] a composite “false“ image of the distributed surface of the Earth by integrating the perspectives of multiple orbital satellite perspectives into one (interactive) visual totality“.5 Whether we agree or not on his “stack“ description/metaphor, Benjamin Bratton judiciously talks about “economies of mutual stimulation between land, image and interface by redefining the surface of the Earth as a living and governable epidermis“.6 And this mutual stimulation, euphemistic wording as for the situation Google Earth and Google Maps find themselves in, can also be described in this case as the rise of the interface sovereignty. So yes, “the continuous collection and utilization of land remote sensing data from space are of major benefit in studying and understanding human impacts on the global environment, in managing the Earth’s natural resources, in carrying out national security functions, and in planning and conducting many other activities of scientific, economic, and social importance“,7 but it also gave rise, in Google’s use of this data, to a new sort of governance, overarching trans-territoriality to become, as we know, a supra-territoriality. Numerous examples 8 of which could be given, leading to critical situations in some cases, such as when after having placed an historically contested Costa Rican island on the Nicaraguan zone on Maps, Google’s “image“ thus produced has been used as a proof to justify an invasion of the territory by Nicaraguan forces. 9
What are Ingrid Burrington’s images an evidence of? Of an indistinct moment, of a gap in time, of an invisible fact the occurrence of which we can only infer from the “resulting“ image we see of it. They surely raise more questions than they provide evidence. At first sight.
It has become commonplace for the powerful (whichever power they can claim: state or financial) to ask for their erasure from these digital maps, which is quite often accepted. After all, Google is a private company and can’t claim state power. It’s sometimes even taken into account before the sale of the images to Google—or to any other satellite-driven mapping service provider—, but the terms of these negotiations are not disclosed. Unlike traditional mapping, the satellite image is considered truer to its subject due to its partially unmanned production: the distinctiveness of the map, that is to say the fact that it represents the territory as much as it creates it, thus applies to it even more. Most of the time, the map emphasises the state as territorial or spatial entity: it’s the most traditional manifestation of state power. The legal issues that ensue the use of satellite imagery for mapping are fascinating: which should be the applicable legislation to the view of a territory: the one of the country where the satellite is registered or the one of the country that appears on the image? Google buys the rights of the majority of the images it uses. Who should be governing these images? Of course, this raises the issue of a supra authority, but isn’t that strange that such a mapping service is customized according to the place where the user is based?
It is now generally acknowledged that “platforms have assumed and absorbed several core political functions of the modern state“ 10 and it is becoming the consensus that data is subject to the laws of the country/jurisdiction in which it is stored, but data is far from being only at rest and it’s essentially in transit. This is where the sovereign power of data bunkers comes into play, and if the word bunker can at times be understood metaphorically in the sense of “fortified locations in the cloud for data storage“, 11 it has to be noted that “many highly publicized data centers […] have located themselves in former military installations“. 12 And with this notion of bunker comes the one of encryption, which seems so far the solution to jurisdiction concerns when data traverses geographical borders.
It is also interesting to notice that Google boldly communicates about its former military personnel employees, in particular in the Berkeley county where Moncks Corner is situated. The communication strategy used by Google concerning its data centers definitely remains unclear, and this is the main fact that Ingrid Burrington highlights in her part of the Reconnaissance series dedicated to the company’s data centers. The traceability of their construction appears fragmented, just like the records of the satellite images’ modifications. History loses its steadiness in the digital era as “parts of our intellectual record are disappearing in such a way that we cannot even tell that they have ever existed“ 13 as Julian Assange once outlined while discoursing on the page not found issue which doesn’t say more than this, even when a story “was removed as the result of a legal threat“, for instance.
If the demand for transparency is a subject on its own that we can’t even skim here, Burrington’s images seem to mirror this production of a new geography we are witnessing, a geography reconfigurating influences and networks in their inextricable entanglement with state and corporate governances, while computational governance dissolves in a “platform immanence“. 14
A composite of already composite images, the images in the Reconnaissance series underline the difficulty that lies in trying to access two opposite ideas at the same time with the same clarity of mind, and the fact that “maps of horizontal global space can’t account for all the overlapping layers that create a thickened vertical jurisdictional complexity“. 15 They enable the production of a third image, an image which only lies in the eye of the viewer, possibly the image that both companies like Google and intelligence organizations like the NSA forbid to mechanically produce of their facilities. 16 Possibly also an image of the kind artificial intelligence systems developed by these same companies and agencies can now create. A physical and deliberately low tech version of a generative adversarial neural network. An image of the event that had not been recorded by the satellite, an image of the missing moment in the history record.
- Hilary McGann for CNNmoney: Denmark will get world’s first tech ambassador (published on January 27th, 2017) ↵
- Adam Taylor for The Washington Post: Denmark is naming an ambassador who will just deal with increasingly powerful tech companies (Published on February 4th, 2917) ↵
- Ingrid Burrington, Deep Lab Lecture Series, Dec. 9, 2014 ↵
- “we forget that the legislation that funded much of the U.S. highway system was called the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956.“ Ingrid Burrington, Why Amazon’s Data Centers Are Hidden in Spy Country, Jan. 8, 2016, The Atlantic. ↵
- Benjamin Bratton, The Stack, On Software and Sovereignty, The MIT Press, 2015, p. 87. ↵
- Ibid. ↵
- The Land Remote Sensing Policy Act of 1992, article 1 ↵
- Lots has been written in the press about the moving boundaries on Google Maps and the scandals they caused. But the most scandalous things surely are the way the private sector interferes in supposedly public law issues such as the outlining of state boundaries and the highly questionable solution chosen by Google that is to determine contested boundaries according to the opinion in use in the country from which they are being looked at on the Internet. ↵
- For more, see: Google maps error sparks invasion of Costa Rica by Nicaragua, The Telegraph, 2010) ↵
- Benjamin Bratton, op.cit., p. 119. ↵
- Tung-Hui Hu, A Prehistory of the Cloud, The MIT Press, 2016, p81. ↵
- Ibid., p. 91. ↵
- Hans Ulrich Obrist, In Conversation with Julian Assange, e-flux journal, The Internet Does Not Exist, Sternberg Press, 2015, p. 237. ↵
- Benjamin Bratton, op.cit., p. 112. ↵
- Benjamin Bratton, op.cit., p. 4. ↵
- Ingrid Burrington, On the Outskirts of Crypto City: The Architecture of Surveillance, Creative Time Reports, Jan.7, 2014. ↵