Max Bontoft  

We have come to believe that the digital cloud is a placeless, mute, ethereal construct and yet the cloud shaped icon in the corner of our laptop screens has a tactility to it. Pieces of its tectonics, the physical translations of its infrastructure can be uncovered all around us, for it has grown out of and been grafted onto older network systems like railroad tracks, Commonwealth telegraph networks and television circuits. As you begin to take readings across this fragmented landscape, you begin to see how the cloud has become institutionalised whilst its excesses and wastes have been marginalised. What happens when we begin to engage with these moments of exposure? Which institutional structures can begin to knit together and resolve the issues surrounding these fragments and their shortcomings? 

The information economy is shrouded in a veil of invisibility. It hides a universe of technologies and cultural norms. Strung together by a spider-web of undersea cables, electromagnetic waves and a myriad of data centres, each one draining as much electricity as a mid-sized town from primarily non-renewable sources.

Individuals are offered no more than fleeting glimpses of the physicality of the Internet, their laptops, phones, and home router. The most popular stock photos of the Internet infrastructure published in the media, data centers full of cables, tend to make the physical Internet seem clinical, opaque, distant, not something to concern ourselves with.[1]

The truest and arguably the most intriguing moments happen not in these over played monolithic monuments but in the fragments that mark out the routes between them. These moments, almost wholly unadvertised, are the key to directly interfacing with the infrastructure. They become the only elements we can really begin to use to grapple with this landscape of fragments. To take ocular readings from.[2]

Once you start looking it becomes ever easier to see how the bits and bytes of our daily processes are accumulated and translated through physical interventions into monstrous constructs, from bundled antenna arrangements and switching stations to re-inhabited Cold war bunkers.

Very quickly one realizes just how dangerous using a metaphor like ‘cloud computing’ really is because there is nothing remotely light or incorporeal lurking behind the veil. Instead its a complex network of negotiations, hybrids, and interdependent systems, the prime example being the submarine cables which span oceans and account for 95% of all Internet traffic.

These cables, which in places dwell as deep as Mount Everest is high don’t necessarily take the shortest or most efficient route. Instead the positioning of these undersea cable routes is a lengthy one, involving a number of involving factors. Bathymetry (study of underwater depth), geography, international law, and law of the seas. As a result most Internet cables run along the routes of their predecessors, the telegraph cables for convenience purposes. Why go to the hassle of designing and arranging a new route when you can opt to use a pre-existing one which has been tried and tested for more than a century?

Oceanic cables routes mark the rise and fall of Empires. The Red-Line for example is the informal name given to the telegraph network established by the British Empire to reach all its Commonwealth 6 and exists only as an interesting map today of places Britain used to own. Again, fibre optic cables which serve as the current backbone of the Internet cloud borrow many of the same landing sites as their predecessors.

Wires and cables layered across the landscape become objects for understanding some of the public and private power dynamics that play out across the network at the infrastructural level but are not the only pieces of intrigue when we look at the Internet as a place rather than as a network.

Rapacious Consumptions

The impact of computation in general isn’t something that really galvanizes the public, partly because the impact typically happens at a remove from everyday life. Charging your mobile devices uses relatively little power whereas according two one American study accessing just an hour of video weekly through the Internet consumes more power than two refrigerators do in a year. Our glorious Zettabyte Era already uses about 50% more energy than global aviation, or 1,500 TWh of electricity, which just so happens to equate to the entire yearly electric generation of Japan and Germany combined.[3]

The digital cloud’s architecture, its thousand upon thousands of computer servers. Each one running around the clock, powered primarily by fossil fuels in the form of natural gas and coal. These factors introduce questions about time, maintenance, and scale that the tech industry doesn’t often face. The Cloud optimizes for real-time, not geological time. While much of today’s network infrastructure was built atop the infrastructure of the 19th century, the fundamental problem is that it 5 wasn’t built to last. Whiles its astounding that it has lasted through continual maintenance, its undeniable it won’t last indefinitely.[4]


What about those gizmos and gadgets that make all this cloud accessibility so convenient. Whose life’s are specifically tailored to be short lived. Whereas once a watch was a treasured heirloom passed down through the generations, today’s economy would see us upgrade our smart watch yearly. If a computer or a mobile is a bundle of highly expensive energy, then in an approaching age of energy and resource scarcity the current process becomes an absurd one. Discarding recoverable metals is very energy inefficient. The energy saving possibilities by recovering metals are high when compared to the mining of new material and considering that of the 90 ‘easily accessible’ elements found on the Periodic table, 45 are found in the construction of a mobile device alone, domestic salvage becomes obvious, especially in times of blurring borders and fluid capital.

Giant brands like Apple, Sony and Samsung dominate the technology industry. Utilising methods like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to prevent us from unlocking smart phones and repairing our laptops. The results are millions of tonnes of e-waste as devices generally become difficult to upgrade, fix or repair. Smashed monitors, dismantled computers, skeletons of old hard drives pave the graveyard of the Western world serving as an accumulated datum from which we can measure the Cloud’s wastes.

E-waste has become the contemporary exhaust of the post industrial city. These mountains of electrical waste, so large in quantity have formed villages scattered across the developing world where the paperless trail of the needs and wants of the modern day tech consumer ends.  

In areas where the laws and regulations aren’t easily upheld, rivers run black with soot from discarded components which can’t be resold. Its here that components are broken down regardless of issues with toxicity levels for the re-sell value of the raw materials that comprise them.

To The Future

In a world where the passing of information is essential as we process financial transactions and share scientific research in an effort to tackle the problems we collectively face. A greater awareness is needed for what is going on behind the scenes or once the ‘send’ buttons been pressed on our Mac Book Pros. As these new 21st century anxieties emerge does an institutional body have the capacity to arise which would adopt a more vigorous approach to interfacing with these moments of infrastructure? How can architecture begin to frame these sites of intervention in an effort to propagate a positive ideology of change?


1.     Atlantic Wave: women looking at the first transatlantic telephone cable between US & England, James Drake, 1963.
2.    Burned Computer, Larry Dale Gordon, 2006.
3.    San Diego and Arizona Eastern #7, Mark Ruwedel, 2003.
4.    Coal Trains: Alliance Nebraska USA, Digital Globe, 2014.
5.    Fibre Optic Cable Marker, Sam Kronick, 2015.
6.     A mobile phone antenna disguised as a palm tree in Cairo, The Internet as a place, Heinrich Holtgreve, 2013.


1.     Seeing Networks Guide Accessed Jan 2016
2.     Burrington, Ingrid, A Nerwork of Fragments Accessed Jan 2016
3.     Shumon Basar, Douglas Coupland and Hans Ulrich Obrist, The Age of Earthquakes: A Guide to the Extreme Present (Penguin Books, 2015) pg. 2-8
4. Tung-Hui Hu, A Prehistory of the Cloud (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2015), pg. 1-12.