Eyes That Do Not See: Tracking the Self in the Age of the Data Center

With the end of the summer, it's time to start updating the blog with various publications that I have made over the course of the last few months and there have been a number of them. To start off with, I published Eyes That Do Not See: Tracking the Self in the Age of the Data Center in Harvard Design Magazine number 38. Jennifer Sigler is now the editor and did fabulous work putting together this issue.

The title of my article, is self-explanatory enough, but if asked to elaborate, I'd say that my goal was threefold. First, to talk about the data center as it exists, second to talk about the architectural fantasy of the data center as an object of design when data center owners have little interest in such things (and why that may be), third to talk about how our relatinoship with the data center, surveillance, the Internet, and control society in terms of subjectivity.  

Below is a brief excerpt, but you can read my article at the HDM site

… more than just a matter of economics or security, the data center’s relationship to architecture embodies our cultural condition. Where the factory embodied processes of industrialization and modernization, data centers exemplify what Gilles Deleuze calls “control society.” In discussing the emergence of modern forms of discipline, surveillance, and control, Deleuze cites Michel Foucault’s observation that the industrial era gave birth to a disciplinary society, marked by discrete spaces of enclosure in which one endlessly was put in one’s place—from the school to the barracks to the factory to the hospital. These sites were devoted to ordering time and space, to distributing individuals into a productive force.5 Deleuze sees that system rupturing under its rigid constraints in the face of new systems that promise to be more adaptable, reformed, humane, and equitable. Rigidity is replaced by flexibility; obedience, by choice.
But the control society does not do away with power; on the contrary, power is now far more pervasive and efficacious. Instead of enclosures, control operates through modulations, in a continuously applied system that can make its demands on individuals at every moment, regardless of their whereabouts. Physical spaces are replaced by electronic access codes. Under the guise of greater freedom and flexible work arrangements, networked devices pervade everyday life, constantly issuing their demands, and ceaselessly reiterating them. Instead of resisting attempts at facilitating work taking over our lives, we respond by turning to “life hacking,” a tool to optimize our productivity.
The data center is the purest site of modulation in control society. Its function is not to maximize storage but to optimize flow, making possible the barrage of status updates pushed at us—be they from social networking sites, news feeds, or e-mails—that we condition ourselves to respond to instantly. Even capital is subject to this logic. If the factory was the site where wealth was created during the Industrial Revolution, today’s most advanced levels of finance—which operate in specialized data centers such as NYSE Euronext’s Global Liquidity Centers—extract wealth from algorithmic trades that invest in and produce nothing, profiting instead from momentary discrepancies in security prices. Designed to generate profits regardless of the direction the economy is heading—and having removed the need for raw materials, labor, or commodities—algorithmic trading marks the transformation of capitalism into a series of pure modulations, a mathematical game.
Modern surveillance was developed hand in hand with the rise of disciplinary society in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Individuals had directions to follow, rules of behavior to abide by, and quotas to meet, all ensured by the ever-present eyes of managers and whatever mechanical means (such as time cards) could be garnered in support of efficiency. Managers sought both to see and to be seen, to gaze upon the factory or office floor and to impose their power by their own presence. The end of enclosures, however, also means the end of visibility as a means of control. The workplace is diffuse, spread across the totality of our existence, across continents, in the spaces formerly known as the office and the home, as well as the subway, the car, the airplane, and the hotel. We demonstrate our productivity through the data we generate, along with our ability to be in touch at all times. Those who run the data center aspire to Oz-like invisibility. It’s enough to know that the NSA monitors our communications to ensure we behave, and that Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion monitor our financial transactions to determine our credit score. We might imagine then a very different meaning for the phrase “eyes that do not see.” The data center has eyes that do not need to see, in the visual sense. Here, surveillance is algorithmic—it is a matter of mining for suspicious patterns of words; unusual purchasing behaviors; visits to websites harboring terrorists, child pornographers, and extremists; as well as other triggers. The same kinds of algorithms that monitor the market to determine the opportune moment to initiate financial transactions also read our e-mails and track our purchases to decide when to strike against us. “Total informational awareness” shapes the modulations of control society.