Art

A Documentary Series Breaks Down the Infrastructure of Cloud Computing

When viewing promotional videos of data centers from corporations like Google and Microsoft, artist Matt Parker always felt something was missing: the sound of this internet infrastructure.

Winterton-on-Sea, UK end of the UK-Netherlands 14 cable (photo by Carol Parker)

When viewing promotional videos of data centers from corporations like Google and Microsoft, artist Matt Parker always felt something was missing: the sound of this internet infrastructure. “Such videos, and even the insider access granted by Google’s Street View data center project, seemed to be holding back something,” Parker told Hyperallergic. “I think it was the noise, and I think it was the precariousness of the human-maintained network itself. I wanted to explore the noise, the messiness, the human generated risk of the seemingly clinical infrastructure of the internet.”

The People’s Cloud, which Parker directed with cinematography by Sebastien Dehesdin and Michael James Lewis, is a six-part art documentary investigating the physical spaces of cloud computing, with interviews from the people who use and maintain these sites. The project follows the London-based audiovisual artist’s 2015 project The Imitation Archive, a composition based on some of the world’s oldest computers at the National Museum of Computing in Bletchley Park, England.

A slice of Iceland’s oldest telecommunications cable (photo by Sebastien Dehesdin)

“The [National Museum of Computing] residency was an opportunity for me to pause and go backwards a bit; reflect on where computing has come from to what it has become now; to think through the mechanical, physical, and geographical shifts in the technology,” Parker explained. “In a way, I can see a parallel between the utter secrecy imposed upon Bletchley Park by the state, at a time of war in the UK, with some of the clandestine tactics and operations that occur now within the corporately-controlled internet industry.”

Five episodes of The People’s Cloud have been released so far, beginning with “What is the Cloud vs What Existed Before?,” which features interviews with engineers on the transition from early personal computing to today’s “accidental megastructure.” Subsequence episodes include “Working Out the Internet: It’s a Volume Game,” “The Submarine Cable Network,” and “How Much Data Is There?” Future additions, which are being shared fortnightly through Vimeo, will highlight the “internet of things,” the increased demand for data, and a “where next?” consideration on quantum computing. Accompanying essays for each episode appear on the project blog. Throughout every episode, the humming, clanking, whirring sound of the internet infrastructure is very present, whether in the Centrum voor Wiskunde en Informatica data center in the Netherlands, or a hydroelectric power station in Iceland. In addition to the videos, you can also listen to Parker’s field recordings, soundscapes, and compositions from his visits to network sites across Europe.

“I approach everything with sound in mind first, and then build out from there, developing my questions with sensitivity to the acoustic architectures of the spaces I visit,” Parker said. “In this way, I hope to make unseen links or indexical markers between the organic, inorganic, and sentient folds that overlap within media infrastructures.”

Production of The People’s Cloud (photo by Sebastien Dehesdin)

Matt Parker’s The People’s Cloud is available to watch online

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