SOUNDS OF OUR ERA
The Data Centre
Standing in the middle of a data centre, deep in a Finnish forest, I am truly surrounded by technology. Thick corrugated tubes run across the ceiling above me and snake below my feet. Tangled wires explode from towering machines that reach at least a kilometre in every direction. There are endless little lights in a myriad of colours. Blinks of blue and green, white and red, yellow, purple, pink. It feels simultaneously unruly and ordered: there is a sense and a design to the space, but it's nonhuman. The gaps and avenues that divide the machines are that of a network. Nothing is linear, everything is everywhere.
This data centre belongs to Illus, who currently host around 20% of the world’s web traffic. In their colossal servers they store your data and cookies, and the web apps and software you use everyday. Behind any web page or service - your email, a government system, a streamed video, a news website - sits this mass of machines and connections, cables and wires that trace along land and under sea to massive structures such as this.
We call this system the cloud, which conjures the image of an intangible, flimsy, floating mass in the skies above us. When I save to the cloud, I imagine my information dissolving into dust, rising slowly through the atmosphere, before lodging itself in a fluffy mound of water vapour. But in fact the cloud is this - wires, cables, servers, firewalls, computers, machines.
Inside the data centre, I am shivering. I’m wearing 12 layers, and at least one thermal vest, but the cold finds its way through. The building has hundreds of fans, which whir aggressively, desperately trying to cool the internal systems of the machines they have been charged with protecting. If the machines get too hot then the whole system melts. These fans result in a gentle, but continual hum, broken regularly by scattered beeps - machines turning off and on, servers connecting and disconnecting. It’s an agitated buzz, never quite settling, impossible to relax into. After a while, I can’t tell if the shiver is cold or vigilance.
As I leave and emerge back into the finnish firs it's the sound that stays with me. It’s the sound the data centre puts out, but it also feels like it’s the sound hidden deep within. A constant buzz of information, more and more and more. The data centre must keep on going, always, whirring, it’ll never stay still.
This is a sound of our era: