Book reviews, Comments, Culture, In Focus

Hidden in plain sight

For many people, it is now difficult to let 24 hours pass without either sending or receiving an email, using some form of social media or managing finances and other matters online. Behind the seductive comfort of all this are data centres which store the text, pictures and information.


Milchbuck. “Data Centers”. Book page: 123-124. Copyright: Andrea Helbling.

Sean Sheehan


The centres process as well as store data via numerous networked servers and are involved, for instance, in the route a text massage takes from one smartphone to another.

They exist and most of them are not top-secret but we know precious little about them. They are hidden in plain sight.

The less-than-exciting cover of “Data centers: edges of a wired nation” is very appropriate for the book’s subject matter.

The overwhelming majority of data centres are not located in bunkers deep underground but they do tend to be hidden from view. We are not encouraged to be interested in where they exist, what they look like or what goes on inside them. They are quiet, sterile places, mostly unobtrusive and mostly uninhabited.

The photographs in “Data centers” capture the strangeness of their interiors: multitudes of fibre-optic cables and wiring, cabinets and empty spaces that function together and mask the intricacy and precision of their functioning.

Lugano. “Data Centers”. Book page: 51. Copyright: Andrea Helbling.

Computing centres in the 1970s were based on paper, console typewriters, punch cards and the like. The following decade brought in the term ‘information technology’ and now we live surrounded by anonymous-looking data centres with high security services.

China has become an important producer of fibre optic cabling, justifying a chapter in the book about the entanglement of that country with digital infrastructures in Europe.

Digital surveillance, facial recognition and advances in AI depend ultimately on the data centres that we know so little about. This book goes behind their closed doors and although it is focused on Switzerland what it presents and discusses is of general interest.

Switzerland is the third most attractive country for data centres, after Iceland and Norway, with the United Kingdom in ninth place.

It is estimated that by the year 2025 the volume of data in Europe, now measured in petabytes (1000 terabytes; one of which is 1000 gigabytes) will be increasing annually by 25%.

Considerable amounts of electric energy are needed to maintain, secure and monitor the cooling that is fundamental to their efficiency. The question of how ‘clean’ data centres are depends on how much of their energy comes from fossil fuels.

Cable drums with so called loose tubes. “Data-Centers”. Book page: 272. Copyright: Marc Latzel.

Data centres are non-places, opaque spaces devoid of social relationships and shielded from public view. Considering how they play a vitally important role in our lives, the public’s lack of concern about their existence and their lack of transparency is worrying.

“Data centers” is one of the few books to look at their creation, maintenance and regulation.

“Data centers: edges of a wired nation”, edited by Monika Dommann, Hannes Rickli and Max Stadler, is published by Lars Muller Publishers.

(Photos supplied by the publisher)

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