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Data Centre

An internet data centre

New research article reveals the scale of manual graft needed to keep ‘the cloud’ aloft

The representation of cloud technology as an automated realm powered by ethereal data flows fails to do justice to the exhaustive human effort that is required to keep the data centres behind it running.

Technicians, cleaners, facility managers, security guards and service desk operators all play important roles in ensuring that the “on-demand”, “real-time” and “instant access” nature of today’s online world runs without interruption, 24/7.

This is the argument of a new academic article published by a cultural anthropologist at the University of Exeter who researches the material and environmental dimensions of communications infrastructure.

Cloudwork: Data Centre Labour and the Maintenance of Media Infrastructure, by Dr Alexander R. E. Taylor, is based upon the researcher’s experience of visiting data centres in the UK and interviewing staff about the round-the-clock pressures of maintaining constant connectivity to meet our voracious appetite for online media.

“We rarely stop to consider the work that goes on behind the screens of all our digital media – until it breaks down,” says Dr Taylor, of the Department of Communications, Drama and Film. “We click 'play' on Netflix or 'post' on Instagram and expect everything to just work and we get very frustrated when it doesn't. This is because we have this perception of the internet as some sort of ethereal 'cyberspace' or 'cloud' that is fully automated, rather than networks of data centres where actual human beings work under a lot of pressure to ensure everything flows smoothly.”

Data centres provide cloud computing resources for a broad range of commerce, consumption, distribution and production systems, in sectors such as the financial services, transport, logistics, communications, utilities and media.

Some tech giants such as Google and Meta house their operations in bespoke facilities, but many national and international organisations – even as large as Twitter and Netflix – lease public cloud infrastructure on a pay-as-you-go-basis from data centre providers.

Dr Taylor visited these facilities as part of his research and was able to gain a unique insight into the working conditions experienced by those who are required to maintain the servers.

He said: “Despite the image of immateriality that the “cloud” metaphor conjures, I learned that, for those who work in the data centre industry that underpins the cloud, this infrastructure is experienced as material, fragile and precarious, and it takes considerable labour to ensure that these services remain constantly online and available.”

Dr Taylor says that this element of maintenance has become a hugely important but overlooked form of media labour – whether they are working to respond to issues or acting to anticipate and prevent them. With servers being upgraded roughly every twelve months, there is a constant focus upon migrating data to ensure business continuity.

Dr Taylor finds that the data centres are often uncomfortable workplaces, optimised for machines rather than people. There are also recruitment issues in the sector, and when coupled with the often long-hours demanded, the pressure placed upon staff is considerable. Therefore, he says, many centres are investing in AI technology with an eye on moving towards complete automation.

“The big problem is that internet infrastructure is now so complex and interdependent that many of the people maintaining it no longer really understand how it all connects together,” adds Dr Taylor. “And this is why we are now seeing more and more instances of platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp going down and vast portions of the internet going offline.”

Cloudwork: Data Centre Labour and the Maintenance of Media Infrastructure was published as part of the Routledge Companion to Media Anthropology and has been released open access.

Date: 28 November 2022

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