Beneath the Clouds, the Beach
From the Series: Evil Infrastructures
What you see is an experiment in mapping information infrastructures from above. Our target is the system of undersea Internet cable landing stations and data centers stretching across the North Atlantic from Iceland to the United Kingdom, connecting the Faroe, Shetland, and Orkney Islands along the way. The vertical vision enabled by the drone situates the viewer in an atmospheric stratigraphy between Google Earth and the human field of vision. We test the limits of human vision in these flights because the drone is often so distant that it cannot be seen. Instead of looking at the hovering drone, we stare at an iPad connected to a controller and thereby see and sense through machine apparatuses—sonar, 4K and infrared video, GPS, and altimeter mounted on the drone hundreds of meters above the ocean. This would be a disembodying experience if it were not for the illusion of embodying the drone’s perspective. But what are we actually seeing from this vertical viewpoint?
The video above shows one node on the undersea Internet cable CANTAT-3 near Tjørnuvík, Faroe Islands. We do not know what evil flows through the cable to Iceland, Canada, Germany, Denmark, and the United Kingdom, although we do know anecdotally that the Islamic State (IS)—considered by many to be evil incarnate—once registered a website for the on-brand .is domain name, which was housed on Icelandic servers and made use cables like CANTAT-3. But what is depicted in the video is the vertical vision of a drone as remote-sensing atmospheric platform whose lenses and sensors are focused on the ecological situatedness of information infrastructures, the geographical isolation and environmental expansiveness of Tjørnuvík. I am curious to understand what evil or revolutionary possibilities can be sensed with drone methodologies.
The title of this essay is a play on the Situationist slogan “beneath the pavement, the beach”—a mantra intended to invite a new way of seeing the radical potential of the city’s infrastructure, including the cobblestones underfoot as potential weapons. For the Situationists, the revolutionary potential hidden within the city could be rediscovered through new methods of seeing and acting in space. My drone info-structure project is similar, as an attempt to see the wicked and radical potential of information infrastructure, beneath the cloud and coursing as a fiber-optic cable under the sand of the beach.
Consider a second drone video that we collected in the North Atlantic. This one is a fly-over of a data center outside of Reykjavik, which is connected to undersea cables similar to CANTAT-3. Flying the drone in high winds over a highly securitized data center in subarctic summer twilight causes us to pause, to be careful, to wait and wonder about what goes on in there. It triggers our imagination and we attempt to make mental connections between what the data center digitally does and actually is before our eyes.
Anthropologist Tom Boellstorff (2012) has offered a useful theory about the relationship between the digital and the actual. The correlation between the virtual avatar and the actual person, he argues, is not one of cyborg hybridity or eventual convergence, but rather one of indexicality. The avatar and the physical body are separate entities, divided by a gap of space, with the avatar as a type of offspring of the actual person. In this way, the drone video is a virtual depiction of a data center, itself a materialization of virtual electrons and code. As the bullet hole is what remains of a shot fired, the data center has an indexical relationship to Big Data—it is the residue of informational excess.
We see a warehouse with few workers, the external parts of air conditioners, and miscellaneous machinery. Like a sheet of white paper awaiting a charcoal rubbing, it is full of information yet empty of content. A brutal, massive, and impenetrable fortress for the security of information, data centers have little semantic meaning. Rather, they are assembled by flows of digital capital in the form of mobile data, cosmopolitan workers, international investments, and valuable transactions. Attempts to visualize information infrastructure struggle to surmount the gap between these actual actions and the transmission and storage of virtual data. This drone video is an iconic tracing that maps points of power, but in the end fails to interrogate how data centers are residues of data flows.
The drone reveals more by seeing less. This absence is the gap between a representation of infrastructure—here, a drone video of an air-cooled data center—and that which it is attempting to document, an unfathomably heterogeneous assemblage storing and transmitting every conceivable form of communication. Such a chasm separating the actual and the virtual is inherent in semiotic relationships and cannot easily be transcended. The semiotic gap between a video of a data center and what those infrastructures do—let alone what they mean— is so vast as to make another approach necessary. Toward that goal, I am using sensors that hybridize human and computer senses in order to recode indexicality—a theory attentive to semiotic gaps, connections, similitude, difference, and context—to investigate the visual and material manifestations of evil and revolutionary infrastructure.
Evil infrastructures are all around us. Some of it is quite banal—the faulty router in a tangle of wire—and some of it exists just out of sight—submerged in the sea, flying above our heads, buried in the sand. Seeing evil is not a problem of aperture and focus, using the right lens and finding the correct perspective. Other senses need to be mobilized, animal-machine hybrids need to be constructed, and indexical links need to be made if evil is to be sensed in its cultural relativity. Evil might not be readily apparent through the eye of the drone but it begins to reveal itself through bridges constructed between senses, from vertical visions to ocular sensations, from distant North Atlantic islands and speculations about the evil or revolutionary infrastructures that might exist on their shores.
Boellstorff, Tom. 2012. “Rethinking Digital Anthropology.” In Digital Anthropology, edited by Heather A. Horst and Daniel Miller, 39–60. New York: Berg.