‘Immaterial digital culture’ has physical presence, takes up space, natural resources

posted in: Opinion | 0

At the Art Institute of Chicago, in a room full of ornate armor, I wondered what would be left of our immaterial digital culture. Of course, this was an unfair characterization of modernity.

The material hasn’t been lost in the digital, as data is not a ghost haunting the Macbooks and iPhones of the world. Hard drives, like the one in my computer, spin as manically as the wheels on a bicycle kicking up asphalt along Morrison Avenue.

When people speak of physical music, they often point towards CDs and records. These discs spin in the same way my hard drive spins, which spins like an accretion disc spins to make planets and stars, including our own solar system.

All of these discs spin, collecting fragments of data into a pattern of motion that discerns form and shape from the emptiness.

The hard drive is just the closest example. The NSA’s giant server farm in Utah, where the Executive Branch stores numerous violations of personal privacy, used 6.6 million gallons of water in August 2014.

While Google may seem quasi-magical, in Oregon alone it has three data centers that are 68,600 square feet each. Even the digital cryptocurrency bitcoin has a physical presence in the form of giant computer arrays. All told, according to a 2012 article from Wired, data centers use 1.5 percent of all electricity around the world.

Of course, this physical presence makes data susceptible to physical disruption. During Hurricane Sandy, Netflix was inaccessible for users on the east coast because of damage to server farms.

One day, if the sea hasn’t swallowed us, if a meteor doesn’t choke the fields to death, if time keeps on accumulating and centuries pass, will the Art Institute of Chicago have a room devoted to the keyboards of cyber-warriors? Will the motherboard, with its cluttered beauty of silicone and fans, sit behind glass cases to show the art of daily life?

In all likelihood, the knights wearing the armor probably didn’t think about the beauty of their armor in the heat of battle. Each piece has a bullet or two lodged in it, a dent from an overhand sword strike.

Still, there is something so vexing about the utilitarian beauty of the day to day.

Today I do not spend too much time thinking about the servers and hardware miles away, dedicated to preventing cyber attacks from stopping my Google search, or the tons of silicon that is processed in Hillsboro to make the tiny chips that make these searches possible.

Perhaps, in the heat of daily life, be it the battlefield or the homework land, the physical beauty subsides in the name of practicality. It isn’t until centuries later that onlookers will spend hours in front of glass admiring the beauty of the same keyboard I typed this on.

The same keyboard I am allowed to tap furiously is the one they will never touch.    


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