Cyrus Farivar pointed me to this piece from Harper's Magazine, an annotation of a blueprint for a Google server farm on the banks of the Columbia River in Oregon. It's interesting as a reminder of the materiality of "the cloud," that apparently amorphous and evanescent computational resource that exists… somewhere… but who care where.
Google and its rivals are raising server farms to tap into some of the cheapest electricity in North America. The blueprints depicting Google's data center at The Dalles, Oregon, are proof that the Web is no ethereal store of ideas, shimmering over our heads like the aurora borealis. It is a new heavy industry, an energy glutton that is only growing hungrier…. [T]he Dalles plant can be expected to demand about 103 megawatts of electricity– enough to power 82,000 homes, or a city the size of Tacoma, Washington….
In 2006 American data centers consumed more power than American televisions. Google… and its rivals now head abroad for cheaper, often dirtier power. Microsoft has announced plans for a data center in Siberia, AT&T has built two in Shanghai, and Dublin has attracted Google and Microsoft…. As the functions long performed by personal computers come to be executed at these far-flung data centers, the technology industry has rapturously rebranded the Internet as "the cloud." The metaphor is apt, both for our foggy notions of a green Web and for the storm that awaits a culture that squanders its resources.
Some time ago, Richard Grusin pointed out that claims by hypertext theorists that electronic writing was "immaterial, ephemeral, [and] evanescent" were problematic because "these ephemeral electromagnetic traces are dependent on extremely material hardware, software, communications networks, institutional and corporate structure, support personnel, and so on." Or, as he put it elsewhere, "Claims for the agency of electronic technologies marginalize the materiality of these technologies."* Clearly assumptions about immateriality and evanescence haven't gone away.
It also occurs to me that the metaphor of "the cloud," in contrast to cyberspace, is decidedly non-spatial: the could isn't a place, it's the absence of physicality.
*The Grusin quote is from, "What is an Electronic Author?" Configurations 3 (1994), 469-483, quotes on 476, 471.