a partial representation of the global footprint of the cloud

Observing the state of modernism in his 1934 book Technics and Civilization, Lewis Mumford claimed the tools and technologies of each generation as a window to understand its foundational human characteristic. The current bundling of data-mediated spaces that are collectively packaged as “smart” claim to provide not only the tools of technological development but the very environments of human habitation. Smart homes, smart neighborhoods, smart cities, and smart regions present a seemingly seamless scalability to these technologically mediated environments. The body, now instrumented through the smart phone, the smart watch, and other wearable technology, has become an active participant in the scales of smart urbanism. But what may be obfuscated by the high visibility and hype associated with these technologies are the massive operational geographies that underlay many of these initiatives. Geographies that remain hidden as a function of the convenience and power dynamics coded into the user side of these technologies. grounding.cloud is about these hidden but enabling geographies.


The cloud is, on one hand, a globally expansive technical project that is built on the inherent connectivity of technological devices and massive technical networks of storage, processing, and delivery. On the other hand, the cloud is also a social project that socially and culturally, through marketing, metaphors, and ideologies, conditions its users from whom it extracts massive amounts of behavioral data. The socio-technical construction of the cloud in this manner is heavily capital intensive, and hence, the domain of a handful of large multinational corporations. However, the map of the cloud is not nodal. Its spatial projects encompass planetary-scale geographies and operations: from sensors to data centers, from smart watches to the informal Cobalt mines of Sub-Saharan Africa, and from high tech campuses to the so-called smart cities dotting the globe. This is a planetary landscape dominated by cables, data centers, exchange hubs, extraction sites, manufacturing plants, warehouses, and distribution centers; but also—and as importantly—the smart cities and technology campuses themselves, where the extended geography of the cloud is concentrated and connected to its user-citizens. grounding.cloud is not just about tracing the spaces of data, but also about examining the sociopolitical structures and ideologies that support and continually maintain data regimes and their spatial imprints. 

To be clear, while there are architectural components to this geography, this work is not about architecture or isolated landscapes. It is not about a singular disciplinary logic or about carving out new agencies for one field within a seemingly emerging discourse. It is about something much larger and more historically grounded. Hence, design research in this context cannot limit itself to the fragments of aesthetics and data center thermodynamics. Nor can it analytically compartmentalize the sites of decision-making in Silicon Valley away from the mining practices and extraction geographies of the elements that go into the devices that are “designed in California.” Therefore, this project derives from the need for a more nuanced and grounded reading of the cloud and its multiscalar spatial manifestations.

Here, the notion of “the cloud,” as a socio-technically constructed organizational model that underlies the lateral expansion of data empires, is spatially grounded through four overlapping territorial strata: farms, or purpose-built large-scale data centers and their associated energy projects; pipes, or the physical networks of delivery and control of data; mines, or the extractive sites and operations of data devices; and enclaves, or corporate headquarters of technology companies and their bounded "smart" city initiatives. While here each layer is unpacked separately, it is critical to understand them as part of the same whole. The case studies presented in each layer are not meant to be exclusive and exhaustive. There are other sites that need to be analyzed. The sites presented here may fit under multiple layers. Yet as an initial charting of the extended geography of the cloud, these studies position its operations in space and time, hence grounding it within our spatial imaginary.