Emplacing data centers: How digital technologies perpetuate marginality
Johnson, Alix. "Data centers as infrastructural in‐betweens: Expanding connections and enduring marginalities in Iceland." American Ethnologist 46, no. 1 (2019): 75-88.
Data are often imagined as something non-tangible and translucent, as the very metaphor of “the cloud” implies. Similarly, data centers are envisioned as “noneventful nodes in global networks” or “high-tech hotels” for digital information (p. 75). Yet, as Alix Johnson reminds us, data centers are material structures, embedded in specific physical places and their histories; these centers also impact those who live in their vicinity in very concrete ways.
Digital technologies are often promoted as helping people to overcome marginality through the “death of distance” (p. 75). However, Johnson shows that for Reykjanes, a peninsula in Iceland where data centers have been growing like mushrooms, quite the opposite is true: there, data centers do little for the local population but perpetuate its marginality.
Over the last decade, Iceland has invested intensely into becoming a data center hub. Promotional material, like the video below, presents the country as a perfect place for such enterprise because of its cold climate and a robust energy grid that can support servers continuously.
What remains less visible, however, is that data centers in Reykjanes are built on defunct military infrastructures, left behind by the American army. Although the base is now long gone, it’s history still hovers over the local population and shapes its relationship to data centers.
Since the Second World War, Iceland served as a “stepping stone” for the US military in the Atlantic. The base was “at once empowering and exploitative” (p. 80). On the one hand, it provided for an influx of American commodities and capital, including in the form of building infrastructure such as airports and highways. On the other hand, through performances of secrecy and security in the form of razor-wire fences and checkpoints, the base made local people “feel like a guest” in their own country.
“The Reykjanes peninsula was enrolled in a project at best irrelevant to its residents’ interests and it was made an uncomfortable kind of intermediary: in between the East and West of the Cold War, in in between the Americans and other Icelanders. … Reykjanes was, for many in Iceland, becoming more marginalized than before” (p. 81).
As Johnson argues, the “modes of connectivity” that the military base and the cluster of data centers have established on Reykjanes, are strikingly similar.
Data centers came to Iceland with the promise of reviving the local economy after the closure of the military base in 2006 and after the financial crisis of 2008. They also came with a broader aspiration for Icelanders to establish themselves as “modern” and “competitive.”
However, until this day these hopes have not been fulfilled and the locals describe the area as still “feeling foreign” (p. 83). Data centers have inherited not only the physical infrastructures established by the American military, but the industry also continues to set Reykjanes as an intermediary, “at once included and rendered irrelevant.” Despite being a key node in supporting global digital networks, poor economic, employment and education conditions perpetuate Reykjanes’ marginality; the people living there remain excluded from “circuits of capital, power and esteem” (p. 84).
With the flows of data simply transcending Reykjanes, digital data centers have not enhanced the connection between peninsula and the rest of Iceland, let alone the world, but only reinforced its status as an “infrastructural in-between.”
As Johnson (p. 86) concludes,
"it is not just infrastructural breakdown or failure that fosters unequal differences: eminently successful, high-tech, transnational connections may do the same.”