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ISEK - Institut für Sozialanthropologie und Empirische Kulturwissenschaft Populäre Kulturen

Creating Data Worlds. Data Centers and their Cultural Impact on modern society

Bearbeiterin: Julia Fleischhack

Förderung: Fritz Thyssen Stiftung

Laufzeit: Mai–Dezember 2013

Durchgeführt wird das Projekt am: Program in Science, Technology, and Society (STS), Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Since data centers emerged in the late 1960s, they have not only become a global model and symbol of the modern mass-data-processing in the 20th and 21st century, but serve as central nodes in our everyday life and digital world: It is a highly technical data-machinery in our modern society that has become a central site of global data movements and transformations as well as multi-directional networking. Myriads of data are continuously processed, organized, systematized, directed, and redirected on enormous computer servers on a day-to-day level.
In my research, I am interested in the ways data centers – as a central facility of the modern data processing – influence the present organization of data and especially the societal handling of data. Since their early stages, data centers were more than a new progressive way of data processing. They were a source of big visions of gathering, exchanging and exploiting large amounts of data and of transnational collaborations. But they were also, from an early stage on, a source of conflicts: Especially in the beginning of the 1970s in many European States and the US the enormous amounts of data became an object of critical attention and political controversies. (In Germany, the first data centers in the public administration were one of the main causes for a complex set of legislation for the handling of data in general, that was initiated in the late 1970s by the West-German government. In the US, in particular the government’s plan for a “National Data Center“ caused some public stir and became a controversial topic in political hearings).
In this project I will focus on the recent rise of large data centers in the private sector around the world and particularly in the United States. I am interested in their inner life and how these specific facilities form and shape our organization, processing, distribution, and handling of data. Moreover, I want to document how visions and norms of modern data processing are produced, materialized, institutionalized, and culturalized in and about the data center. My argument is that they are exemplary for how spatial and normative limits of the modern data processing are continuously rearranged, negotiated, explored, and scouted.
The project is informed by an ethnographic and historical approach. It will focus on the United States as a significant site of large data centers in the world, but will also consider recent developments in Europe. I want to conduct qualitative interviews, e.g., with operators and operating companies, planners, engineers and designers, employees of data centers as well as politicians and computer scientists. The interviews will include questions concerning the organization and handling of data, aspects of data protection, the challenges of the future. I will explore sites of data centers through visits to the headquarters, through actual walks on location (when possible), through maps, plans or self-portrayals. The ethnographic approach also includes a large analysis of written and visual documents on data centers (For example, homepages, brochures, folders, scientific journals, specialized books, media reports etc.).