Behind the beauty and crudeness of automated landscapes, this report from the Netherlands reveals that human bodies are not absent at all in these centers of production, but instead adopt the uptime rhythm of automation.
In the rationally ordered Dutch landscape, machines mirror the human dream of relentlessness. Servers in data centers, milking robots in dairy farms, and automated guided vehicles in greenhouses—their “uptime” period is perpetually maximized and guaranteed day and night. Out of sight, in the often unnoticeable and inaccessible fringes of cities, these meticulously designed automated landscapes constitute the epicenter of labor transformation. Yet, despite the apparent absence of human bodies—marketed as eliminating risks, unions, and failure—none of these operations and landscapes turn out to be exclusively automatic. In fact, all are dependent on the contingent interference of humans and other species.
A towering automated fence opens into the Interxion AMS8 data center, an 8,000 sqm edifice a stone’s throw away from Amsterdam’s Schiphol International Airport. This ostentatious building stands out amongst the characteristically boxy structures inhabiting such business parks. Across a large, desolate car park, Interxion is nearing completion of another center, its 10th in Amsterdam, almost doubling the size of its two-year-old neighbor. Over the past five years, numerous international enterprises have located their data centers within the Dutch borders, attracted by the accommodation of submarine cable landing points and core data distribution nodes, as well as reliable access to renewable energy and a cool climate. Along with “hyperscalers” Google and Microsoft who found shelter in the Netherlands’ northern peripheral polders, so-called “colocation” or “multi-tenant” data centers like Interxion’s AMS8 are strategically clustered at bespoke business parks in close proximity to city centers. Typically, these centers provide shelter, cooling, power, bandwidth, and physical security for servers and other hardware for businesses from gaming industries to public tax authorities. Guaranteed uptime of 99.999 percent serves as the main tool for acquiring new clients, hence the sector’s jargon that effectively capitalizes on the absence of human bodies.
The “white space,” whose name and aesthetics spark many people’s imagination, is home to the servers—a Cartesian layout of loud, buzzing cooling systems and flickering LED lights. The 19-inch server rack replaces the human body as the benchmark for design. Standardized white computer floor panels cover cooling ducts and fibre-optic cables, provided in equal lengths to eliminate negligible speed differences within the building. Moreover, the human-exclusionary experience of the white space suggests an elimination of failure, in some cases marked by the use of ultraviolet lighting.
As an antidote to the white space, the grey space comprises all of the “back-end” infrastructure such as power supply, chillers, thermal storage, backup generators, transformers, and fire safety systems. Present in duplicate or even triplicate, redundant components can be activated in case of any “failover,” ensuring a continuous operation with a “downtime” of less than 10 minutes a year. In return, these redundancy measures cast their shadow on the urban landscape and its supporting energy infrastructures. The municipalities of Amsterdam and Haarlemmermeer recently announced a temporary halt to new data centers in the capital’s metropolitan region, anticipating imminent power outages.
“We like to see ourselves as a high-end five-star hotel—for servers instead of humans,” clarifies the manager of AMS8. Its entrance lobby reflects this, furnished with iconic design chairs lined up in front of a large reception desk where engineers check-in and out. A grand staircase clad in lavish natural stone draws up another security border, after which a biometric scanner unlocks a pivoting door to the climate-controlled white space. Engineers arrive at the neighboring airport and enter the data center any time of day in their squeaky-clean outfits. They can work according to their own local time zone, install and maintain hardware, and leave again. Day and night no longer exist. Socio-economic dislocations are introduced across various unknown and distant territories; in this physical manifestation of the 24/7 data economy, human bodies are not absent at all, but instead adopt the uptime rhythm of automation.
The dairy farmer running ever-larger farms in the densely utilized Dutch countryside is affected by similar disruptive patterns. The Lely Astronaut, a milking robot developed by a family business specializing in agricultural automation, is promoted as “making farmers’ lives easier.” Along with automated feeding, fencing, and cleaning systems, Lely’s holistic system liberates farmers from heavy labor. There is no longer a need to stick to traditional milking cycles and wake up at five o’clock each morning. While robots toil away watching over the herd, farmers can tailor their care to the individual animals perpetually monitored by their “smart collars.” Yet despite this liberation, farmers need to be online 24/7 to maintain an overview of their robotic co-workers, intervening in case of downtime. Manure on a sensor or a robot malfunction triggers a notification urging the farmer to take immediate action, even in the middle of the night. Technologies and new forms of labor marketed to free human bodies in fact contribute to their permanent uptime.
After the milking machine radically transformed dairy farming and its landscape in the post-war Netherlands, automation is taking the industry into another exponential leap forward, allowing dairy farmers to rapidly scale-up operations and businesses. Since 1960, the average number of cows per enterprise has increased from nine to 103, multiplying family businesses every generation, yet every day four are forced to cease activities, their land and farms conglomerated. De Klaverhof, a dairy farm in the polders just south of Rotterdam, expanded last year by acquiring an adjacent family business, now operated remotely with Lely robots. Instead of scaling up, automation allowed Het Lansingerland farm to expand business activities, employing forty people to run a child day care center, a wedding venue, a care farm with mental health services, a shop, a catering business, and a campsite. In the meantime, dairy production is monitored by automated systems and overseen by a single human operator.
To remain competitive in a global market, horticultural clusters grow exponentially too. Inside the greenhouses that occupy and enclose vast parts of the Netherlands, growth is the only constant. Apparently unrestricted by exterior conditions and human labor, tomatoes, peppers, and orchids grow anytime, anywhere, and in any place—in rockwool substrates without natural daylight or nightly darkness. Meanwhile, algorithms maximise growth by optimising moisture levels and artificial lighting, planning optimal moments for pollination and harvest. Photosynthesis occurs as an interface on the grower’s dashboard. A single day of downtime for these supportive infrastructures can be disastrous for the harvest.
Yet, the operations in these mimetic natural environments are still very much dependent and contingent on human and non-human bodies. The delicate labor of picking fruits and cutting leaves is still a manual task, gradually becoming less seasonal and executed by migrant workers from countries extending evermore eastwards. Despite their bodies being invisible and unaccounted for in the dominant narratives surrounding automation, their productivity is monitored in real time by RFID scanners, then evaluated and managed by the greenhouse performance systems.
Besides human bodies, commercially farmed bumblebees are deployed to pollinate tomatoes and cucumbers, while parasitic wasps are unleashed to control populations of whiteflies, aphids, and leaf miners. Sticky traps help identify and monitor detrimental flying species to aid biological measures that anticipate potential threats and prevent the unnecessary application of pesticides. This precision approach to horticulture significantly reduces the usage of chemicals and water, and could potentially introduce new forms of care for soil and other natural bodies in which humans and non-humans collaborate.
As seasonal labor becomes increasingly expensive, the automation of manual workforces is gradually implemented. However, from automated guided vehicles assisting workers hand-picking peppers, to harvesting robots that work day and night, efficient and profitable implementation of these automated systems requires enormous turnovers and hence ever-larger elongated greenhouses. Horticulture businesses therefore move out of dense pre-existing greenhouse clusters such as Westland in the west of the Netherlands, where greenhouses average 2.7 hectares, towards peripheral polders like the Wieringermeer in the north of the country, where greenhouses measure up to 140 hectares. The typology of the greenhouse here takes a different innovatory scale, multiplying dimensions and economies, with 60,000 peppers shipped around the world daily during uptime seasons.
Behind their beauty and their crudeness, these landscapes reveal that human bodies are no longer at the center of operations, but stand aside, redistributed and displaced. Hidden inside vast and unassuming enclosures, their rhythms and actions are dictated by automated systems. This less visible side of automated labor contrasts with the sublime LED halo that over-illuminates the night sky over the once pitch-black fields and rural areas; one that prevents stargazing from the ground, but from above illustrates the technological achievement of Dutch automated landscapes.