Computers Are Made of Rocks

Allan Sekula, from "Fish Story"

Take nearly any web-enabled service today, like Uber, which uses location-based data, or Amazon, which stores your credit card information. In many ways, these are the darkest patterns; huge networks that seep into fundamental parts of our daily lives, turning once questionable behaviour into mundane decisions.

Designer Tristan Marantos, quoted in Frontier Magazine

An Introduction
Most people don’t think about infrastructure until the moment it stops working: the elevator is out of service, the subway gets stuck in the tunnel, the store is out of strawberries on two consecutive visits. People might recognize, in some way, that “the cloud” is in fact a vast network of data centers and undersea cables. But how often do we stop peering into our phones to look at them? As artist and writer Ingrid Burrington often reminds people, our phones are made of rocks and oil. Here are stories from three writers who focus on the logistics and materials underpinning our lifestyles.

The Internet Is Hiding in Plain Sight
Burrington’s 2016 book Networks of New York examined urban internet infrastructure, from sidewalk markings and manhole covers to “carrier hotels” like the 8th Avenue building that now serves as Google’s Manhattan headquarters. More recently, she ground an iPhone down until it was a pile of dust, which prompted her to meditate on the fact that “the entirety of today's real-time information ecosystem sits on top of a dense sediment of ancient geology.”

The Vast, Distributed Winter
Nicola Twilley has spent nearly a decade researching, writing about, and mapping our modern “coldscape”—a global network of temperature-controlled storage and distribution warehouses that bring you the products that end up in your refrigerator. As she argues persuasively, “Artificial refrigeration has reconfigured the contents of our plates and the shape of our cities—it has even contributed to the overthrow of governments.”

Software’s Real-World “Bullwhip Effect”
Miriam Posner has recently tackled another level of abstraction: the software that coordinates global supply chains, asking how the code works and what it conceals. (That essay references artist Allan Sekula, whose work is illustrated above and who turned his “critical realist” lens on container shipping in the early 1990s.) As Posner notes, “The people who design and coördinate supply chains don’t see warehouses or workers. They stare at screens filled with icons and tables. Their view of the supply chain is abstract. It may be the one that matters most.”

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