The Node Pole as the Archive's Underbelly?

Curator's Note

Facebook no longer requires an introduction; its user-base is currently estimated at 1 billion active monthly profiles. On the front end, it’s become the epitome of the user-generated content platform and the postmodern living archive. Its underbelly, however, remains much less explored or theorized. What kinds of servers are required to host such large amounts of ‘free’ information, offering up data so rapidly? How do they function? How many? Where? Taken together, these pragmatic questions inform an important theoretical intervention: these dislocated servers–existing in “enterprise zones” and arctic hideaways–not only effectively blind us to the potential environmental costs of our everyday obsession with self-archiving, but also demand a serious revision of the preservation ideals that underpin it. 

Everything we do on Facebook - said to consume 1 of every 7 minutes spent online - triggers servers as a means to locate and return data. These perpetual demands, doubling globally every 18 months, require a lot of energy, which generate a lot of heat. To avoid a meltdown, cool down is required. Enter: the Node Pole. Luleå, Sweden, is home to the 3rd and most recent storage center built by Facebook; prototype for the Node Pole. It's in itself 3 complexes, each equal to one in Forest City (NC), which is itself double the size of the Prineville center (OR). Like data, storage centers are proliferating at exponential rates, in size and speed. These dislocated centers heighten the distance between users and the data they generate as necessary to maintain the archival illusions of continuous uninterrupted access. While the ecological impact of these transactions is at the heart of any critical analysis of Facebook, it's the justifications themselves (for the energy spent) that offer the richest theoretical terrain to explore.

The video presented veils any critical engagement with these large-scale developments. If we imagine Facebook as an archive in the face of mass data creation and circulation - as our billion plus participation indicates - we are faced with the always on, always available, connections it enables through us, and our own desire to always be on. We come to understand the material space of the archive and the electricity that powers its machines, as a virtual ethersphere that produces bigger records than the lived realities it records. This In Media Res piece offers a series of provocations reconnecting Facebook to the bodies and machines that enable it, and the ideals that inform it.


Really fascinating post, Mél . Your call to recast the virtual as an environmentally significant category seems an important methodological/intellectual move for both studies of digital culture and environmental history. i'd be interested to know whether the history of technology has worked through the relationship between environmental impact and techno-housing zones. I'm also fascinated by the language of "archiving," here, particularly because the history of this term oscillates so nicely between physicality and virtual-reality (say from Benjamin's archives to Chun's Programmed Visions). But all of this reminds me that considering the environmental significance of physically housed virtual info/"data" raises questions about permanence and ephemerality with respect to this new, environmentally significant archive. I wonder if you have some thoughts on the relationship here between ephemerality, techno-archives, and environmental impact.

Agreed-- I think the language here is very interesting as this issue brings together environmental preservation and digital self-preservation. We've already seen the way the language we use to refer to Internet space ("the cloud"), has affected our notions of the very real infrastructure we use everyday.

Such a compelling example of the materiality of archives -- would be a great case study to examine from the point of view of infrastructure studies, where the material infrastructure of data storage supports the 'immaterial' infrastructure of Facebook as a platform for social expression/activity. I wonder how one would map the site's architecture onto the architecture of these data storage areas? Thanks for such a provocative post! It definitely merits further research and would be a great example to use in teaching infrastructures too.

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