In late Summer 2020, TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, announced that it planned to build its first European data center in Ireland. This will supposedly transfer EU and UK data held on US data centers back into Europe. The announcement was welcomed by the Industrial Development Authority and other pro-business organizations in the country, although many media reports acknowledged that there would be controversy. Ireland’s intimate economic and political connections with the US, including the US’s informal military landings at the Shannon Airport in the west of Ireland, mean that hosting the Chinese multinational may generate tension. The US state’s intentions to ban or facilitate a US buyout of TikTok come from increasing economic tensions with the PRC, which will not likely cease even once software multinational Oracle takes on a significant stake in the company. Nonetheless, amidst fearmongering about Chinese government data collection via the platform, the Irish state intends to allow the company to develop a large-scale data operation on its soil to accommodate TikTok’s European activities. But multinational data centers in Ireland do not only hold and circulate European data—they also historically facilitate US data.
The territorial politics of digital platforms reveal that there is more to data politics and activism than how we use and navigate social media. The Irish state has come under scrutiny for its facilitation of these data economies and the tax advantages they provide to multinational companies, and the country is becoming a center for data regulation in the EU. TikTok also already holds offices in Dublin.
Among these large-scale geopolitical and managerial strategies, there are also more on-the-ground territorial politics associated with this potential data center. A politician in Westmeath, a county in the rural Midlands of Ireland, has proposed building the TikTok data centre in the jurisdiction, on peat boglands formerly held by the semi-state peat company, Bord na Móna. The company is attempting to phase out peat extraction and burning as a carbon fuel source by 2030, as part of an overall state strategy to meet climate targets. Data centers have been proposed by the organization as one of a number of potential solutions to secure alternative employment for those who work with peat as a fuel source, whether in extraction or power generation. TikTok’s first European data center may be housed in a deeply rural region that is navigating a transition out of the extractive industries and into a digital future.
But what sorts of new relations of extraction does the tech economy create? While TikTok announced their planned data center in the heat of summer, winter will soon arrive. Data centers produce heat through computation (see Velkova). In Dublin, Amazon Web Services is working with the Tallaght District Heating Scheme to use their data center waste heat in the area to heat local homes during the country’s cold, rainy, and blustery winters (see Lally). But this waste heat, ultimately, also comes from the energy grid and the country’s power plants, which still burn majority carbon resources (along with growing renewable capacity like wind). The state’s energy strategies are reportedly “heavily influenced” by the planned growth of data centers.
Energy, like politics, is not only large-scale. It is not exclusively generated by burning fuel in power plants or by spinning wind turbines. As many in energy humanities and adjacent fields have argued, “cultures of energy” and the various ways in which these are enacted and expressed also constitute more quotidian activities. Irish households burn peat to heat the often poorly insulated structures. The practice of turf cutting is itself not only wholesale but done by families and landholders on small bog plots throughout the country. This fuel source will eventually be phased out for both commercial and personal use, while data centers will continue to be developed and affect their own culture of energy.
Will TikTok’s data center in Westmeath heat homes, or will it heat the atmosphere? There is no way to know just yet, as we can be sure ByteDance is still working with planners and negotiating terms of development. Nonetheless, with the urgency of climate change and the speed at which energy infrastructure must adapt to emergent economic and environmental realities, these are the sorts of practical and aesthetic questions we need to ask ourselves when dealing with the infrastructural footprints of digital platforms and technologies.
Far from only being a platform that will be used by consumers in Ireland and will employ a few workers at its data center, TikTok's data center will introduce a series of externalities that will continue to ripple across the country and beyond to the state’s transnational relationships. Calling attention to and pressing against such unfinished projects tends to raise more questions than provide answers, as these projects and the attention surrounding them disturb and unearth unseen ecologies and politics. But what remains true is that burgeoning TikTok users and activists may, sooner rather than later, want to come to terms—by more closely dealing with hidden "terms and conditions"—with the managerial strategies, territorial politics, and environmental externalities of the company that administers their platform.
Disclaimer: The TikTok above appears to be from County Derry, one of the six counties of Northern Ireland, not the Republic of Ireland.
Lally, Donal. “The Sacred Fire of a Data Center.” Strelka Mag, 2 Oct. 2019.
Velkova, Julia. “Data that warms: Waste heat, infrastructural convergence and the computation traffic commodity.” Big Data and Society, vol. 3, no. 2, 2016, pp. 1-10.