Between Trident Lakes and Technology Drive (notes from a talk)

May 05, 2017

This is the rough version of a talk I gave at The Story in February 2017. It’s absolutely one of the best conferences I’ve ever attended and this talk was a nice opportunity to talk about some things I hadn’t previously put into a talk, and I’m pretty sure no one’s going to hire me to write about this subject in greater detail, so I figured I would just put my notes here. There are some links as annotations for more context and clarity. I didn’t say all of these things in the talk because sometimes I get flustered during talks.

I’m quite anxious about this talk because when Matt and I talked about it he said one way he prompts people giving talks at this conference is to ask them to explain what it feels like to do what they do. For the last couple of years I’ve been writing about and documenting Internet infrastructure–data centers, fiber optic cable routes across land and sea, the bureaucratic theater of Internet governance bodies. And I want to talk to you about that and what it feels like, but first I’m going to talk to you about something that sounds like it’s much more interesting than a data center but that felt a lot like going to see a data center.

So last week I was in west Texas, outside of Dallas, and I got up at 6am to drive two hours to see the future site of a luxury apocalypse compound. I’d been curious about this particular complex for a while because at initial glance it’s so outlandish it sounds like something made up by Illuminati conspiracy theorists to distract from like, the actual Illuminati scheme.

For starters: the compound is named Trident Lakes. There aren’t any lakes around. Or, there aren’t any yet–they’re going to make artificial lakes on the 700-acre compound, along with a beach, an equestrian center, and a spa. The description that reports love to quote is that it’s a “5-star playground, equipped with DEFCON 1 preparedness.” In addition to its luxury services it’s going to have a DNA bank and 12-foot-tall walls. And a shooting range.

I don’t get to see any of these things, because they are still under construction and when I find Trident Lakes I don’t venture past the “No Trespassing” signs. I didn’t have an address for Trident Lakes, just a rough approximation–somewhere between Ector and Savoy on state highway 56. But it’s pretty obvious when I find it. Right now the only thing visible from the road at Trident Lakes is an incomplete 55,000-square-foot fountain. Upon completion it will feature a 60-foot statue of Poseidon, but when I go to see it the fountain is only partially complete and features horses leaping forward from the center spire. The behold, a pale horse jokes here seem far too obvious. There’s also a construction site trailer in the distance and a post nearby indicating buried fiber optic cable.

There are a lot more places in the world like this than you would think, much like there are lot more data centers in the world than you might think. The interesting thing about Trident Lakes is it’s being built from scratch. Most of these projects repurpose old munitions bunkers or silos. In interviews, the CEO talks about having a 200-year worldview for this “community” which is accessible only to the very wealthy who pass a thorough screening process.

Eventually while I’m standing there taking photos, a black Jeep pulls over to where I’m standing outside the gate. He asks me what I’m doing. In situations like this I am never sure if playing dumb will get me in more or less trouble, so I’m just kind of deliberately vague and say that I wanted to take photos of the fountain after having seen it off the road. He immediately asks if I’m a reporter.

I always feel disingenuous calling what I do journalism for reasons that are probably too complicated to explain (the short version, which is also the very long version, is my dead journalist father). This man does not have time for my complicated reasons. But when I instead tell him I’m an artist, I’m hit with the sinking guilt of knowing I’m more or less lying by omission. He knows I’m lying. I’m a very bad liar. I don’t really have a good reason to lie here other than the fact this man looks much bigger than me and I really don’t want to be forced to delete the photos I’ve just taken.

But he’s willing to play along a little, and we briefly small talk, about my art and about the fountain. At one point he asks me if I think it’s nice. This is probably the weirdest part of this interaction. Even as he clearly wants to get me to go away, he wants me to validate this project, its baroque grandeur and DEFCON 1 preparedness and horrifying future in which I want no part.

And I respond that well, the fountain is…big, and there’s that, and I should really get going. He approvingly drives back past the “NO TRESPASSING” sign. And I realize I have no idea where they’ve place the compound’s surveillance cameras that must have brought the man in the Jeep out here. And I leave.

So, in my experience going to see data centers is actually a lot like looking for luxury prepper developments. Both containers for constructing a certain kind of world, for a certain kind of person and a certain kind of reality. I don’t know if I would go as far as to compare them to cults, but other people have and I have definitely nodded vigorously while reading these arguments.

Of course, data centers lack the sense of grandeur of a doomsday compound, maybe. American data centers are like the happy families of Anna Karenina: all alike, unhappy in their own hidden ways. There’s sort of a rough taxonomy of types of data centers that’s emerged over the past decade and it mostly aligns with companies renting server space or owning their own data centers. But a lot of the landscape architecture and planning aspects persist. The strategically placed hill that obscures the actual data center is probably the most obvious one.

If it’s a big enough compound, the office park or data center gets to name their own streets, and they tend to all use the same names. Technology Drive, Reboot Road, Innovation Way. This used to bother me more, but we used to name streets after wealthy families, and dead generals, and landmarks and businesses. Naming streets after buzzwords and abstractions maybe isn’t that weird, it just speaks to a shift in the locus of power. Wall Street isn’t any more original than Technology Drive.

The accoutrement and signaling of a data center isn’t quite 5-star playground with DEFCON 1 preparedness, but the interior aesthetics do tend to have similar signifier to luxury bunkers–spaces that are causally expensive, vaguely near future, and extremely secure. Hexagons are a popular detail, as are blue LEDs. Security protocols are varied but elaborate (fingerprint scanners, mantraps, RFID badges).

When I’ve gone on data center tours I know most of this security theater isn’t really for me, but there is a subtle nudging request for validation in these design choices. In colocation data centers, it’s for someone else’s middle management–potential clients who need to be impressed. In purpose-built data centers like Facebook’s, it’s for a general public that uses but maybe does not love Facebook. Facebook’s desire to be loved and trusted has always struck me as sort of overcompensating. The public image of the data center is about reassuring someone (clients, themselves) that this ridiculous massive human project of the networked world is secure and certain and inevitable and perpetual, and by extension they are secure and certain and inevitable and perpetual. And, it is worth noting, privately held. There is a difference between infrastructure and public works, and spending time with Internet infrastructure is a reminder that the anxieties over walled gardens and media manipulation and equal access kind of missed the extent to which the Internet was never “ours” to begin with.

Making infrastructure is often framed as building things that can last beyond one’s lifetime. It’s also about building things that don’t just maintain but actively construct and justify a certain version of the world, and of what’s sensible and expected in it. We’re in the middle of some weird, deeply dark times where people with power are setting up and reinforcing paradigms that protect and justify their hold on power. And they do it spatially, they do it with the built environment as much as they do it with policy and media and force. They build compounds, they build walls, they build pipelines, they build bunkers, they build data centers in the desert. And sometimes they call it security and sometimes they call it community. But it’s really about survival of a particular way of being and the security of a particular kind of world and life. And this is not new, really, it’s just louder and more blunt about it now.

So if I’m going to answer the question of what it feels like to do what I do, it sometimes feels like I am a heretic approaching the various strongholds of corporate cargo cults. Which is to say that I usually feel like I am maybe going insane and if I understood why I was doing it, I probably wouldn’t feel the need to do it. But I still think it is important to try to see the world for what it actually is, in all its strangeness and horrors and lack of resolution.

See also: notes