Alix Johnson, a PhD student in cultural anthropology at UC Santa Cruz, will be going to Iceland to study the practices and discourses of data centers. She studies information infrastructures in capitalist economies and postcolonial politics, and researches these questions in Iceland where they take strange and fascinating forms.
Adam Fish: What makes Iceland important for information activism?
Since Iceland’s pretty spectacular financial crash, and the subsequent protests that kicked the government out of office, information technology and politics have cropped up in many projects of reform. In a lot of ways the crisis was framed as a problem of secrecy – too much secrecy had allowed for massive banking risks and backroomban deals, and this was a problem more public information could solve. The politics of information freedom, then, have been appealing and are taken up in a range of ways: for example, the so-called “crowdsourced constitution,” Iceland’s ongoing connections with WikiLeaks, and most recently the election of three Pirate Party MPs – the first Pirates elected to a national parliament.
But the part of this turn that interests me most – and the piece that my research aims to address – is the way that information is used to carve Iceland out a new niche. In recent years Iceland has been pitched as an “information haven”: an attractive place to store the data of the world. The idea is that data stored in Iceland is subject to Icelandic laws – so by passing “information friendly” legislation (favoring free speech, online privacy, and intermediary liability protection), and building data centers where information can live (an easy sell in Iceland thanks to the cool climate and inexpensive geothermal power), Iceland can change the rules of the game. In my research I ask how these efforts reconfigure the internet and re-imagine the nation, by following the “information haven” as it’s materially made.
AF: Cloud computing companies are the quintessential black box, difficult to access the people who work inside and once inside difficult to understand. How have you overcome these difficulties?
Honestly I’ve had to structure my approach to work around them. But I’ve mostly come to terms with these limitations, as I’m less interested in data centers’ inner workings, and more concerned with their impact on and role within the communities where they “live”. That is, while I do spend time with data center developers, I hope to spend more time interviewing locals – who more often see these new structures as big buildings that block ocean views, capital-intensive construction projects that redirect municipal funds, or concrete tributes to transnational connection. From this perspective, secrecy can make an interesting starting point. That said, I also read the trade publications, and look forward to my very few allotted trips inside!
AF: You are going for a year, what are you going to do? With which companies will you work? Continue reading