Corridors of Power

After the National Security Agency “maxed out the capacity of the Baltimore area power grid,” according to an article in The Register – itself citing The Baltimore Sun – due to the near-endless electrical needs of its wire-tapping supercomputers, the NSA has begun planning the construction of a brand new, $2 billion data center in the deserts of Utah.

[Image: Photo by Thundered Cat].

There, a vast, million-square-foot warehouse might thus soon rise at the intersection of two major national “power corridors.” The Agency, we read, hopes eventually “to decentralize its computing resources and tap regions with ample supplies of lower-cost electricity.”
While I’ve already written about the literary implications of server farms – that is, server farms as the library of the future – and I don’t want to repeat that analysis here, I’m led to at least two further questions:

1) Is there a role for architects in the construction of rural data centers for the U.S. intelligence services, and what might Vitruvius, for instance, have to say about the spatial needs of supercomputers? Would De architectura have contained an extra chapter about the square-footage of rural data centers if Vitruvius had been alive today – and, if so, what might it have said? For that matter, what if Rem Koolhaas had written Delirious New York during an age in which that city’s major IT operations took place inside windowless, hydroelectrically powered warehouses in the Hudson Valley (or even Québec)? What spatial lessons might these ex-metropolitan data warehouses entail? Further, if, say, SOM were to design every governmental server farm in the United States, and if those server farms were then used to store sensitive information about the habits of U.S. citizens – what international calls they make, what books they buy from Barnes & Noble, what movies they rent from Netflix or even Sugar DVD – would that represent an ethical compromise? Is it morally right to design spatial envelopes for server farms, when the computers housed therein might be used in invasive ways?

2) I’m actually quite fascinated by the idea that the NSA has been looking “to decentralize its computing resources and tap regions with ample supplies of lower-cost electricity.” This comes with fascinating implications – for instance, that some random town in Wisconsin (or, of course, Utah) might unknowingly become host to several dozen supercomputers of extraordinary strategic importance in the pursuit of national security… even though the only real evidence that this undeclared hardware exists will be a mysterious strain on the town’s evening power supply. Each night at 8:30 the streetlights dim: it’s the harddrives cooling down, or warming up, or turning over for maintenance. Like some weird new version of Salem’s Lot, in which the anonymous presence haunting your town is actually a government server farm stored inside an old factory by the river, surrounded by cyclone fencing… After all, “regions with ample supplies of lower-cost electricity” might very well include towns in the Rockies, in Alaska, and out on the tornado-prone plains – and so, similar to Tom Vanderbilt’s exploration of decommissioned nuclear silos in the horizon-spanning ranchlands of the great American nowhere, there might yet be future spatial archaeologies written about military data centers, surveillance data centers, wiretapping data centers, any sort of top secret data center that once hummed away somewhere in the darkness, perhaps even disguised as suburban houses. That apparently empty bungalow you see at the end of your street, like the opening scene of War Games, in other words, is actually full of harddrives; it’s not Ed Gein coming home at 3am, strange packages in hand, it’s an Information Assurance officer coming back to check the fuses. It’s the informational gothic: the IT needs of Homeland Security narratively transformed into a new genre of mysterious blackouts and spatial paranoia.

(Originally spotted via @stevesilberman).

8 thoughts on “Corridors of Power”

  1. re 1): a. I'm skeptical that architects have much of a role in the construction of the vast majority of the built environment. government architecture, excepting museums and monuments, is pretty uniformly generic. b. Vitruvius would have to fill a few more than 10 books to cover contemporary conditions, but it would be a worthwhile project.

  2. Maybe it would be more appropriate to look outside traditional writings on architecture to find some analysis on these structures. How about James Blish's "Shelter Societies" as mentioned in the work A Case of Conscience?

  3. Architects are an untapped resource in general- being a student myself- especially for projects like this. Though couldn't there still be opportunities for the design profession in general? -First it would be nice if these inaccesable super-stores would be less rude to the landscape in which it imposses -and also isn't there some way to design the relationship between it and its community to be more mutually beneficial. What if the by product energy being created could be harnessed and stored possibly to light the street lamps?

  4. I think it would be refreshing if architects were to draw a strict line here: anyone who works on a project like this (and who does not sabotage it) may as well be working on a concentration camp. Likewise those who work on prisons or who work on police stations. There is no way to make the relationships of the community to these things more mutually beneficial. By definition they are the enemies of human freedom and, last I checked, communities are made up of humans. Whatever poor sap does design them would be doing us all a favor if they designed them to look like mosquitoes, bats or some other similarly-evocative creepy-crawly, because that's exactly what they are. Some truth in design would be great. Or, perhaps for further inspiration, may I suggest to the designer a theme out of 1984 as inspiration: a boot stamping on a human face forever. Architects are fooling themselves if they think they can work on these projects and have a clear conscience.

  5. @Phoenix
    how are data centers, by definition, the enemy of human freedom?

    they are a necessity to our current way of living. you wouldn't be on the internet without them. i'd argue they are bound to be, if not already, the defining infrastructure of our era.

    the majority of the world isn't networked yet. but they will be. compound that with the proliferation of ubiquitous computing, and the world's going to need a bunch more data centers.

    the most important components of a data center are a redundant power supply, intense cooling, and proximity to end users. the world needs to think this through…

  6. data centers and mission critical facilities are some of the most challenging projects that one can tackle in the design world today…and require close attention to many areas of design and engineering…

  7. I live in the Land of Coal, Kentucky, where power is cheap, and politicians cheaper. The next town to the east, Simpsonville, has two new data centers being built for cheap power and easy access to Interstate 64. Simpsonville's other industry is SaddleSeat riding, a horse fetishism. The local satraps praise the industries for the handful of jobs they provide, and believe this will bring technology to the town.

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