The clouds in the sky seem weightless, fluid, or even immaterial to us, though we know that isn’t true: they are made of vast quantities of water and harbor differentials on a sometimes catastrophic scale. Notwithstanding this, the digital “cloud” is also considered somehow immaterial, or at least lightweight and energy-saving. This association seems to be a prerequisite for digitalization and informationalization to be promoted as sustainable – counterfactually, but to some extent successfully. An accident of knowledge from which one set of actors – with purely financial interests – benefits.
The observations described and generalized here are based on peripatetic visits – especially to data centers and technology parks in western Germany, including in Stuttgart, Frankfurt/Offenbach, Bochum, Paderborn, and Hannover in late 2021/early 2022, as well as the direct confrontations about the Cyber Valley in and especially around Tübingen in the past three years.
The material center
We actually know that the “cloud” is built from raw materials and consumes them continuously. It is considered “critical infrastructure” and is secured with public funds, while producing private profits. Its material realization is accompanied by massive shifts in ownership and diesel-clouded logistics of earth and cement.
Cement, for example, is obviously needed to build the data and computing centers themselves – which are increasingly emerging as sites of both urban and rural gentrification and displacement. They require land and at least some proximity to logistical, administrative and/or financial hubs. They rely on a continuous power supply that is not only business-critical, but increasingly critical for public infrastructures. The data and computing centers prefer to be fueled from and promote local renewable energy sources, but they also require a national backup of power supply with gas or nuclear power plants, as well as a supply of diesel for emergency generators.
Wherever these computing and data centers are built, the asphalt is torn up from different directions, cables are laid and buried again. And vice versa: wherever new highways or train lines are built, broadband connections are also laid. New hubs are springing up beyond the old cities. These cities are expanding and investing. They are investing in new power plants, roads, bike paths and jogging trails that develop and restructure the space between farmland, technology parks and residential areas that have sprung up at the same time.
The immediate forecourt
What clouds in the sky actually have in common with their imagined counterparts on the ground is their fluidity – the sheer impossibility of defining their ever-changing boundaries.
While computing and data centers initially appear to us as territories clearly delineated from their surroundings and in fact fenced off, with few discrete staff and thus virtually self-sufficient, they require constant maintenance, protection, and supply of operating materials. Although much of this is automated, it requires people to supervise access, incoming goods, and waste disposal; service providers to mow lawns, control insects, keep hallways clean, deliver food and supplies, and replace hardware on a more or less continuous basis.
The companies responsible for the maintenance and management of the computing and data centers are usually located in their – more or less immediate – vicinity. Sometimes they also spatially form the immediate forecourt of the data centers in very simple office buildings beyond the barbed wire and the well-secured entrances to the data center itself.
These data center forecourts consist of a typical mix of businesses, at least in terms of their presence on signs at the entrance and at parking spots. One or two of them have been specifically established as operators of the data center in question; three to five international companies such as Bosch, Siemens, Atos and Spie are responsible for individual aspects of operations that are difficult for outsiders to define, and a comparable number of unnamed local companies are responsible for security, human resources or whatever. Sometimes there are signs or at least individual parking spaces proclaiming the presence of one of the well-known global companies such as Microsoft or google, which are also active in managing data and data centers. The business relationships and ownership between these corporations that ultimately constitute the “cloud” can, like the internal structures of clouds in the sky, at most be surmised – and are in a constant state of transformation.
In other cases, these forecourts form the core of a nearby technology park, which was usually built on a greenfield site on the outskirts of the old cities just a short time before, and was the occasion for the expanding of existing transport infrastructures using public funds. Here too, there is usually a smaller power plant and new wind or solar fields in the vicinity. As with older business parks, their construction was also accompanied by privatization and redistribution of land, destruction of ecosystems, and construction activities. Like the older business parks, their construction has been a driving force in the expansion of the urban, the sealing of land, and the transformation of the prevailing or even the possible forms to generate income.
In any case, the assumed preference of the ostensibly young and well-paid workforce in the tech sector for locally and organically grown products is at least in tension with the space and opportunities that their modern factories leave for growing food. But perhaps these preferences are also a myth, because around lunchtime the tech parks are flooded by swarms of vehicles delivering fast food of all kinds to the offices. Indeed, bakeries and restaurants are few and far between there, not to mention health food stores. Although most are well connected to public transportation, large parking garages seem to be part of every technology park.
On the ground, these places often give a very different impression than their websites in the cloud, where they are portrayed as modern, dynamic, prosperous and populated. In the front row, so to speak, near the public transportation stops, you actually often can find fairly presentable buildings with flags bearing the logos of well-known companies next to the main entrances – which are not really present at all. The cafeterias in the entrance area are usually deserted, and instead, simple snack vending machines are set up next to the unused counter. Even the reception area is often deserted or staffed by poorly paid and cheaply uniformed personnel from some security company.
Often, entire floors in these buildings are vacant or furnished and sublet by service providers operating nationwide for days or months at a time. The most permanent tenants of these buildings are often those publicly funded companies that are themselves responsible for the management and promotion of the respective site or have been commissioned by some local network of public business promotion and trade associations to support the local startup scene, which is both present and absent at the same time.
It looks different again in the second and third rows of these high-tech commercial areas, where the inferior construction substance of the quickly erected buildings is immediately apparent, though they are usually still quite new. The mailboxes disclose a large number of firms whose presence is rather transitional in nature. There are often mailboxes of law firms or tax consultancies, on which a dozen companies are named at once on stickers, some of which are written by hand.
The legacy of the “cloud”
Given the scale of these technology “parks” and the “ecosystems” they are supposed to spawn, it may nevertheless be the case that thousands of people work there at a time in hundreds of different companies, perhaps about half of which actually have as much to do with IT as the regional marketing claims. These companies are developing the services and technologies for processing data that the cloud on the one hand enables and on the other requires. A large proportion are based on expectations of future profits from further digitization and “smart” cities.
You will never hear of most of them, and many of them will not exist for long in the explicitly “disruptive” environment. Some will be bought out by larger players – the buy-out comprising not so much the staff or the location, but the patents. Individual companies may – from time to time – succeed and grow. They can then rent the empty hallways and offices in neighboring buildings. But growing companies want to buy and build, and they are supported in this by politicians who want to keep their “lighthouses” and “champions” in the city or region.
This explains, at least in part, the tendency of these “ecosystems” to expand spatially, while in other corners decay has long since set in. Like clouds in the sky, they are in constant transformation; their dissolution is foreseeable. Unlike clouds in the sky, they will leave behind an immobile materiality, sealed surfaces and concrete, and an impenetrable web of private ownership. Like the parking garages at the heart of these ecosystems, they themselves can only be understood through a politically forced redistribution and valorization of space – as well as the cheap availability of cement. And if the next disruption leaves behind a network without nodes, hazardous waste of urbanization, it may still be a success story: Move fast and break things – Let’s go to Mars.
This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “After Extractivism” text series; its German version is available on Berliner Gazette. You can find more contents on the English-language “After Extractivism” website. Have a look here: https://after-extractivism.berlinergazette.de
Christoph Marischka studied politics, economics and psychology in Tübingen, where he is still active in the independent research organization Informationsstelle Militarisierung, where his work includes military research at German universities. He is the author of the book “Cyber Valley – Unfall des Wissens. Künstliche Intelligenz und ihre Produktionsbedingungen – Am Beispiel Tübingen” (2019) and co-initiator of the initiative NoCyberValley.