In their essay, the curators of the Irish Pavilion at the 17th Venice Architecure Biennale take a close look at some of the extraordinary transformations and profound contradictions being brought about by data technologies, decoded through the lens of Ireland’s significant role in telecommunications.
“To be entangled is not simply to be intertwined with another, as in the joining of separate entities, but to lack an independent, self-contained existence. Existence is not an individual affair.”—Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway
As our everyday lives become increasingly entangled with data technologies and their assemblages, our routines are shifting to ever more virtual forms of exchange. We are increasingly constructing and experiencing the world via data networks as apps, algorithms, sensors, data sets, digital devices, and e-platforms that provide new forms of exchange between us and the spaces around us. Not only did COVID-19 provide evidence of our increasing engagement with the digital but it dramatically accelerated how we live together in data. Just think about how quickly we came to rely on digitally mediated forms of interaction, beginning in March 2020. During the lockdown, we didn’t go outside that much, Zoom and Facetime became part of everyone’s repertoire, while our kitchens were repurposed as proxy offices and schools as we worked remotely and educated our kids at home.
Moving from traditional physical modes of interaction to a more cloud-based lifestyle has enormous implications for not only how we live in the world, but also for how designers conceive, order, and produce space. Ours is an age where networked information-gathering devices are pervasively deployed across the built and natural environments. From the data-gathering machines that we carry in our pockets to the proliferation of cameras, sensors, actuators, and other computational devices embedded in the architecture and infrastructures that surround us, radical changes are occurring to spaces via the deployment and integration of digital technologies that design theorist Benjamin Bratton characterizes as “the new normal.”
Yet, even within this new normal, our reliance on data cannot be isolated but must be interrogated within the larger cultural, political, and environmental situation around us; our everyday lives have become increasingly entangled with data technologies. One of ANNEX’s objectives for the book is to attend to the supposition that surrounds the cloud, as transcending physical presence or resourcing. By bringing the physical infrastructure around data under the spotlight, it might reframe how we understand the exponential growth of global data and raise awareness of the spatial presence of data and its corresponding environmental impact.
The Irish context
“This new world of modern communications is a triumph of science and energy over space and time—a world where a small town called Mallow in Co. Cork is now a suburb of New York.”—Mayor of New York, 1866
“… on a single day, the world read closing quotations from Wall Street, learned the prices on the Brussels grain market and the fact that Congress had readmitted Tennessee into the Union the world changed.”—Minister Paschal Donohoe (quoting an unnamed historian on the Valentia Island transatlantic cable)
In 1858, the world’s first transatlantic telecommunication cable landed at Valentia Island, a sparsely populated, rural wilderness off the southwest coast of Ireland. The 3000km cable that extended from Newfoundland in Canada rendered the remote 11km-long island as the most connected node in a global telecommunications network. No longer would Valentia’s morphological attributes—a few small village clusters, gently sloping topography, rugged coastline, and a patchwork of fields—be presented as its most essential characteristics. Instead, the meaning of space would be defined by the umbilical communication infrastructure that infiltrated its earthly mass. Valentia was not only a physical, geospatial construct but had been augmented as an information space. Almost fifty years later, in 1907, the second event with equally significant ambition took place in Connemara, when Guglielmo Marconi set up his communication station to transmit some of the first commercial wireless radio messages across the Atlantic Ocean.
And so the building blocks of the internet and our contemporary planetary communication systems began. Owing to its favorable geospatial location on the western fringe of Europe, Ireland has historically emerged as a strategic node for technological infrastructure and has thus played a disproportionately significant role in the development and production of network communications. Today, Ireland’s agency in global information can be witnessed in the IT sector, in particular. The country is home to corporate headquarters of gigantic tech companies, from Amazon to Facebook and Google to Microsoft, as well as the backstage landscapes of globalization, from data centers to warehouses and their attendant hardware and software. This recent and rapid intensification of global data now manifests itself locally across the Irish landscape as a vast constellation of data centers, fiber-optic cable networks, and energy infrastructures. Ireland is a hub for the European headquarters of multinational IT corporations and is, therefore, the de facto center of data regulation in the European Union (theoretically at least). In 2019, Dublin overtook London as the data center hub of Europe and now hosts 25 percent of all available European server space.
States of Entanglement: Data in the Irish Landscape is organized in two parts. The first part features a catalog of Entanglement, the Irish Pavilion at the 17th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, 2021, curated by ANNEX that details the ideation and construction of the project over two years. A second part draws together contributions from the six members of ANNEX and experts in the fields of media theory, art, and geography, as well as architecture and design, to respond to and interrogate some of the cultural, material, and environmental states of data infrastructure as told by the pavilion. Part catalog, part atlas, and part design manifesto, Entanglement argues that the cloud is not an ethereal and abstract space but has distinct material and environmental footprints that compel us to re-evaluate the utopian fantasy of digital communication and to reflect on how we live together through data infrastructure, today and into the future.
Part 1: Pavilion
Entanglement, the pavilion explores the materiality of data and the interwoven human, environmental, and cultural impacts of information and communication technologies. It highlights how data production and consumption territorialize the physical landscape, and examines Ireland’s place in the pan-national evolution of data infrastructure through raising awareness about the material footprint of the global internet and cloud services, which is entwined with the Irish landscape both historically and in the present day as described above. Entanglement uses the prism of heat to explore the material relationship between data infrastructure and architecture.
“Our bodies are fire containers, each cell an image of the vestal hearth. Heat control is one of the classic cybernetic processes that unite humans and machines, and it remains the central design problem for the chief medium of our time, the computer.”—John Durham Peters, The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media
Technological development, from the stone age to the industrial revolution, is inextricably tied to thermal energy. In his 1851 text, The Four Elements of Architecture, architectural theorist Gottfried Semper puts forth fire as “the first and most important and moral element of architecture.” For Semper, the first human groups assembled, formed alliances, and developed religious concepts around the domesticated fire: “Throughout all phases of society, the hearth formed that sacred focus around which took order and shape.” For environmental historian Stephen J. Pyne, “civilization would be impossible without fire.”
The production and dissemination of data is also the production and dissemination of heat. In the 1850s, due to its inherent thermoplastic properties, sap from the Palaquium gutta tree was used to insulate the world’s first transatlantic telegraph cable between Canada and Ireland. In the early twentieth century, Marconi used peat from local bog lands in Connemara to power his radio stations. By the year 2027, data centers are forecast to consume thirty-one percent of Ireland’s total electricity demand. In 2018, South Dublin County Council partnered with Amazon to recycle the exhausted heat from its newest data centers into local homes, offices, a university, and a hospital.
Information exchange has both technical (as both fuel and byproduct) and cultural (heat being adjacent to information sharing and gaining symbolic qualities) aspects. Heat’s relationship to the movement of information begins half a million years ago with our early ancestors telling stories around the first campfires. But now, as global communication coalesces around the internet, the thermal forces underpinning this planetary-scale network of information exchange have receded from view.
Architecture is a material organization that stabilizes energetic flow; heat is both the driving force and the offshoot waste of the emergence of these spaces. The regulation of heat becomes material in the form of the data center, the server-rack, the motherboard. Airflow and heat regulation become technically featured in the structures that facilitate the immaterial. Therefore, heat proves the immaterial is also material and distributed in space. Heat speaks to a material primitiveness about something often misconceived as “virtual” or taking place in a cloud. A data center’s exhaust heat is evidence that watching a cat video has material consequences that are distributed across space. Heat emerges as a sort of temporal footprint of a virtual act taking place. A visual rendering of a virtual fire, such as Netflix’s Fireplace For Your Home, creates real heat in its production.
Heat is entangled with the notion of deep time. Ancient carbon is burned to generate heat, which was subsequently tamed and used to send a little puff of dots and a little puff of dashes through a cable across the Atlantic Ocean. Today, billions of little puffs of heat plume from machine learning servers that use recorded information from the past to produce calculations in the present that predict future events. This allows humans to see through time, and new temporal spaces emerge.
In this context, the pavilion is conceived as a structure that collapses local- and planetary-scale data infrastructure networks into the most primitive of socializing technologies: the campfire. It draws from both contemporary and historical data storage artifacts as building blocks to form the structure of the pavilion. These artifacts are assembled in a campfire formation, referencing this primitive architectural space where early human civilizations formed alliances, built social networks, and eventually developed complex societies. The pavilion asserts that from the burning of campfires, around which communities gathered, to the management of waste heat generated by contemporary data infrastructure, the production and distribution of information are intrinsically connected to the production and distribution of heat.
By foregrounding these thermodynamic processes as a link between the architectures of the campfire and the data center, the pavilion speculates on the relationship between these forms and how diverse communities converge around them in the past and into the future. Foregrounding the materiality of our digital age, it subverts a fundamental artifact of the network—the server cabinet—to uncloud the sleek aesthetic of an industry that is forming our realities. The pavilion invites its audience to experience this thermal logic themselves through real-time thermographic imaging technologies that juxtapose key sites associated with data infrastructure in Ireland with traces of human activity in the Arsenale.
Software programming is the performative brain of the pavilion. It allows for the control and sequencing of the various media components: screens, speakers, cameras, and fans. In addition, the text displayed on the screens is produced by a machine learning algorithm that has been trained on libraries of text relating to data infrastructure.
A series of email excerpts between the members of ANNEX document the thought process behind the pavilion (poiesis) and the role of each of the artifacts while two critical essays by Catherine Ince and Nicole Starosielski respond to and, contextualize the pavilion, the former within a trajectory of media exhibits with particular reference to the work of Charles and Ray Eames and the latter positions the pavilion’s focus on heat in a history of thermal imagery in medical science and in art.
Part 2: States
Part 2 comprises an atlas of data infrastructure in Ireland as well as ten essays by ANNEX and other experts arranged chronologically from the past to the future that builds on and expands some of the themes in the pavilion with emphasis on the Irish context. These entangled states range from two historical accounts of the original cable coming ashore on Valentia Island in 1858, one from the perspective of the Spatio-temporal abstractions that emerged as a result of linking the two continents across the Atlantic Ocean (Chris Morash), the other on the material footprints of the cable after it landed on the rural island (Merlo Kelly). In the third essay by ANNEX, Donal Lally bridges the past and present, by comparing contemporary data centers in the Dublin region to Napoleonic era signal towers that were established along the coast of Ireland in the eighteenth century. Explorations of the spatial implications of data infrastructure in the present-day investigate the IT industry in Dublin as a regional digital ecosystem (Paul O’Neill); the increasing pressure on rural geographies as support landscapes for data infrastructure (Patrick Bresnihan and Patrick Brodie) as well as emerging embedded technologies in the natural landscape (ANNEX’s, Fiona Mc Dermott). ANNEX’s, Sven Anderson, Alan Butler, and David Capener each explore more universal themes from data infrastructure’s excessive takeover of architectural space (Anderson) to the energy needed for video game mise-en-scenes (Butler) to the way data storage systems archive every aspect of our lives (Capener). Finally, ANNEX’s Clare Lyster proposes futurist visions for how we might more holistically live together with data moving forward (if this is even possible).
As with the pavilion, the publication seeks to expose the romantic metaphor of the cloud by looking at data infrastructure: its materiality, the spaces it produces, and the vast ecological footprint it creates. Moreover, it expands on the theme selected by the curators of the Biennale of Architecture 2021, “How Will We Live Together?” by exploring how we cannot separate our relatively discrete and emotional desires and habits from the influence and pervasiveness of information technologies.
Finally, Entanglement questions if any single discipline can understand and meaningfully respond to the changes brought about by the deployment of digital technologies in different environments? Architecture alone cannot answer these questions. The complexities of these new territories require a multidisciplinary approach that is reflected in the diversity of ANNEX’s background and the insights included in the book.
Cover image: Entanglement, Irish Pavilion at the 17th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, 2021. Photography by ANNEX, Alan Butler