Dr. Alix Johnson, International Studies

What happens when we save something from our electronic devices to the cloud? All that information has to go somewhere, and as the new book from Dr. Alix Johnson, professor of international studies, details, one of those places is Iceland. The book, Where Cloud is Ground: Placing Data and Making Place in Iceland (University of California Press, 2023) is the result of Professor Johnson’s years of ethnographic research into the Nordic island nation’s growing data storage industry.  

You make the point that data is both a product of place and an essential instrument in the making and claiming of place today. Can you expand on what you mean by that? 

Cover of Where Cloud is Ground by Alix JohnsonThere’s a tendency to talk about data as being placeless – data is nowhere, data is everywhere. We talk about the cloud as being this kind of immaterial, ethereal thing up in the sky, and I was really interested in asking, “Where is the cloud?” Not only what is the cloud, but where is it? Where is our data in some kind of meaningful material way? The conclusion I came to is exactly that. On the one hand, data is shaped by where it is located. There are certain parts of the world that lend themselves to certain kinds of data processing. Data is shaped by place because there are different kinds of resources (like energy, climate, political will and financial incentives) available in different places that inform the shape that data can take. 

At the same time, place is shaped by data, or data becomes a resource in making and claiming place, because of the way data gets tied to place-based identity: What kind of place is going to be good at storing data? What kind of place is safe to store data? And implicitly, what kind of people are competent to take care of data? All of these are narratives that swirl around the data storage industry and conversations about digital data more broadly.

Why is data storage, as you put it, an increasingly urgent object of inquiry? 

Data storage is something that, until recently, most people tended not to think about. It’s out of sight and out of mind when we save something to Google Drive or share something on Dropbox, right? It feels as if those kinds of processes don’t require storage at all. In fact, that storage isn’t happening on our own personal computers, but it’s happening in data centers, or facilities that store and process data on a super large scale.  Every click, swipe, and save that we make in our everyday digital lives accumulates. It fills servers, and those servers fill these big warehouses, which networked together constitute data centers, and those data centers take up physical space. They consume natural resources. They take electricity to run; they require Internet connectivity; they require other kinds of infrastructure like roads and facilities. They can influence local laws and national politics. There’s a real material footprint to our production and consumption of data that I think is important to think about just in terms of its sheer impact on the world. 

Iceland has emerged as a growing hotspot for the international data storage industry. Why Iceland? 

Around the time that I started this research in 2010, Iceland was emerging as this new hot spot in the industry. And “hotspot” is kind of ironic terminology because a big part of what drew the industry to Iceland was its cold. Something that’s really important to know about data storage is that storing and processing huge amounts of data produces heat as a byproduct. So when you take a data center, which is hundreds or thousands of servers all running 24/7 at the same time, a lot of heat gets produced in that space, and a big problem for industry professionals is what to do with it. They need to keep servers from overheating, which often involves really intensive air conditioning. However, the industry figured out that if you situate those data centers in places that are naturally colder, you need less of that air conditioning and therefore you need less energy. If you stick a data center in a place like Iceland, data center representatives told me that you could just open the windows and let the cold Icelandic air in. It’s a little bit more complicated than that, but essentially cold places are in some ways kind of naturally suited to the data storage industry. 

Then it becomes a question of national distinction. For example, there are tax breaks that are offered to tech companies to build there, but there are also national or cultural narratives that are told about why this is a good place to store your data. Icelanders invested in the industry made a case that Iceland is, for example, a particularly safe place, a particularly politically liberal place, a particularly tech-savvy place. And because of its renewable energy, they made the case that Iceland could store data in a way that was uniquely clean and green. The book digs into some of the complications of those narratives – how they are undercut, for example, by Iceland’s long postcolonial history and more recent political tides – not to mention its volcanic activity! But these stories played into the way the data storage industry really got drawn to Iceland in those years. 

Given this geographic isolation, Iceland, as you mention, has a rich and unique history of communicating with the outside world. How does that history come into play? 

Iceland is an island about the size of Kentucky in the middle of the North Atlantic. It’s quite some distance away from the closest landmass. At the same time, in response to those circumstances, Iceland has long fostered really rich and meaningful connections in the form of trade, travel, and technology. The story of that technological interconnection looms especially large in Icelandic national narratives and history. Politicians in Iceland often really emphasize information technology as overcoming Iceland’s marginality and allowing Iceland to have an outsized impact on the world. This is a story that the data storage industry was able to tap into when it came to Iceland, and one that made it feel, in some ways, like a natural next step.  

You spent eight years doing fieldwork in Iceland following four main groups of actors: state representatives who are marketing Iceland, digital activists advocating for change in laws, data center executives and engineers who run the facilities, and residents who live near where the data centers are concentrated. In choosing these four groups, what did you aim to learn? 

That choice was both really strategic and intentional, and also – like a lot of ethnographic research – the product of just letting relationships unfold. I knew that I wanted to talk to business entities, these largely international corporations that were building data centers in Iceland. I also knew that talking to people in government who are responsible for making decisions, creating incentives, responding to challenges around that industry was going to be interesting and important. But then, in spending time in Iceland, something I realized is that these data centers are these giant, disruptive facilities that are a felt presence for the people who live around them. So I wound up expanding my field of inquiry to spend time with people who had less formal relationships to data centers, but still had a really deep understanding and oftentimes a really sharp critique of what the industry was doing in that particular place. They were less concerned with the technical details of data centers, and more able to make connections, for example, between data centers and other extractive international industries (like the aluminum smelters that have been a source of conflict in Iceland for years). Their perspectives helped me understand the industry outside its own terms.

What lessons can we draw from Iceland’s data storage industry story that can be useful for any place that’s considering hosting new or more data storage centers? 

Honestly, the answer from Iceland is that it’s complicated. In some ways Iceland is the best case scenario for data storage. If we have to store our data somewhere, then at least we have this place that has solid infrastructure and large amounts of renewable energy. At the same time, it’s not without impacts there. Data centers make notoriously bad neighbors. Data centers tend to demand tax breaks while not contributing much to the communities that they occupy. Also, even sustainable forms of energy can have pretty significant harms. Hydroelectric energy comes from damming rivers, which often does a lot to damage surrounding environments. And more and more Icelanders are asking if it’s worth it to sacrifice these natural resources for the sake of international industry. 

There’s no way to do what we’re doing with computation that doesn’t have a profound material impact, so we need to take that seriously as we continue expanding our digital footprint. I argue that these aren’t just technological problems we can engineer our way out of; they’re ultimately social and political ones. There are some scholars who go so far as to say we should start thinking about our data management in the same way that we think about other kinds of scarce resources – being mindful about what you share and save in the same way you might be conscious about taking a shorter shower to reduce water consumption. Where my own research lands is that instead of (or at least in addition to) these individual actions, we should fold questions of data management into our movements toward social and environmental justice, because we all have a stake in what our data does and where our data goes.

January 16 2024

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