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As the Covid-19 pandemic forces millions of people around the world to radically reorganise their lives — from practising “social distancing,” to self-isolating, quarantining, working remotely, or shifting education to virtual spaces — data production, consumption and aggregation are growing exponentially. What are the implications of this data explosion, and why does it matter for humans and non-humans, even under the current dire circumstances?

As the COVID-19 pandemic forces millions of people around the world to radically reorganise their lives — from practising “social distancing,” to self-isolating, quarantining, working remotely, or shifting education to virtual spaces — data production, consumption, and aggregation are growing exponentially. 

The planetary digital infrastructure is sustaining the shift to online and virtual forms of production as well as social, cultural, and economic activities, resulting in increasing bandwidth consumption around the world. Messages, online stories, video conferences, or memes also serve to support basic and intimate contact with loved ones, and provide a platform for a public life of virtual gathering and communication. Even as supermarkets run out of supplies of toilet paper, pasta, and canned food, the access and availability to data is taken for granted.

With more screen time, the online platforms have been stretched. In the last weeks, Microsoft Teams has grown from 32 million daily active users to 44 million, who in turn generated over 900 million meetings and calling minutes per day. Facebook confirmed that traffic for video calling and messaging had exploded. The first home-office-day in the Netherlands, Monday March 16, saw an increase of 12 percent of traffic crossing the major data hub AMS-IX in Amsterdam, from 5,8 to 6,5 terabit per second. What are the implications of this data explosion and why does it actually matter for humans and non-humans, even under the current dire circumstances? 

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, many celebrated the seemingly positive impact of the crisis on the environment. Humans indeed take less flights and manufacture less goods. However, it could be argued that meeting lower emission levels should be a result of the actions of big corporations and governments, and not at the expense of human life. This reduction of emissions in sectors such as industry and transportation is, nevertheless, accompanied by an increase in data production, circulation, and storage. 

The growth of current data production not only means increased profits for a few select companies, it also carries a large environmental footprint. Data centres and cloud computing depend on high consumption of often non-renewable energy. These infrastructures produce waste and CO2 emissions. For instance, only forty percent of Dutch data centres claim to use locally produced renewable energy, and so far the re-use of the produced heat appears to be unprofitable. It is no coincidence that the municipalities of Amsterdam and Haarlemmermeer recently banned the construction of new data centers in the capital’s metropolitan region, as the current facilities together consume more energy than all Amsterdam’s households put together. 

Therefore, in addition to the fears around further privatization of public life, surveillance on populations, and data mining, as well as uneven access to the digital infrastructures, the current mode of digital production in self-confinement and isolation does not necessarily lead to a renewed relation between humans and the environment nor to a less exploitative society.

While in the short term the virtualization of life and work is playing a role in the reduction of planetary emissions and is allowing many to stay in employment and maintain social contact, the extraordinary measures that have followed the pandemic have yet to trigger diminished forms of extraction and exploitation. In confinement, emotional, affective, digital, creative labour has increased exponentially. The opportunity to work remotely and have access to a safe space with an internet connection to self-isolate are unequally distributed among the population. In many cases, the work ethos oriented towards productivity has intensified, and systemic forms of discrimination and inequality seem exacerbated.

The pandemic has also evidenced the extent to which data is a valuable resource. Used,to monitor and control the spread of the pandemic—despite growing privacy concerns—big data analytics have become vital in the global search for COVID-19 treatments. Artificial intelligence enterprises devoted their computing power to screen existing drugs and learn about their effectiveness. Due to commercial interests, however, large amounts of data required for these processes of machine learning are withheld by global pharmaceuticals. These times of crisis reaffirm the need for forms of solidarity, such as the open sharing of chemical data sets and libraries

Now is the moment to rethink priorities and decide what the planet and its inhabitants can afford. It is the responsibility of current generations to design alternative futures and forms of existence and for the implementation of non-extractive technologies and economies. This demands more than shifting hopes to a virtual world.

ADS8: Data Matter: Digital Networks, Data Centres and Posthuman Institutions

A new form of architecture for data and machines — almost liberated from human intervention and entirely shaped by technological rationales — data centres are the testing ground for alternative models of posthuman institutions. This long-term project on the architecture of data centres is a collaboration between Ippolito Pestellini, Kamil Dalkir, the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London and Het Nieuwe Instituut.

Data Centres Industries

The Netherlands is the second largest data hub in Europe, with a quarter of its GDP dependent on the data centre industry. Through the analysis of a selection of present-day case studies in the Netherlands, this research project addresses different manifestations of the emerging typology in both urban and rural environments.

Automated Landscapes and the Dream of Relentlessness

Robots and artificial intelligence are used to interact with sick patients, disinfect rooms, deliver supplies and medications and scale up internet traffic, as well as to control and surveil populations. What are the implications and repercussions of automation for the built environment, and for the human and non-human bodies that inhabit it?

Digital and Environmental Heritage

What is the environmental cost of archiving and digitising? 

In addition to questioning what should be collected and preserved today, archivists and curators are increasingly aware of the environmental impact of current collecting models, including the preservation of historical and cultural artefacts and physical and digital documents. Please reach out to us if you are interested in sharing your ideas and projects concerning an environmentally conscious heritage practice.

The National Collection for Dutch Architecture and Urban Planning consists of approximately 18 kilometres of archives and collections, around 2500 models and an extensive library collection. The recently acquired archive of MVRDV is largely composed of born digital material. Its 5 TB archive contains the files of all projects, realised, and unrealised, designed between 1991 and 2008. Additionally, increasingly large parts of the collection are digitized. The total digital archive currently comprises 80 TB of scans, photographs, and other files. This equals an approximate yearly energy consumption of 6.300 kWh, contributing to the production of roughly 3150 KgCO2.

  

Alternative data infrastructures: How designers and artists have been addressing issues of constant connectivity, data ownership, storage and energy consumption

Since the closing of Het Nieuwe Instituut’s premises due to the pandemic, the working processes were quickly reshuffled and migrated to platforms such as Skype, Teams, Zoom, Whereby, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, while the controversies surrounding these products have simultaneously unleashed critical inquiries and searches for alternative platforms for interaction within the team. How have designers and artists been addressing issues of privacy, data ownership, storage and energy consumption? Below a few inspiring strategies: 

LOW<--TECH magazine

Solar-powered website, which means it sometimes goes offline. A self-hosted version of Low-tech Magazine has been designed to radically reduce the energy use associated with accessing content. This is a solar-powered website, which means it sometimes goes offline.

 

 

Grow Your Own Cloud

Grow Your Own Cloud by Cyrus Clarke and Monika Seyfried is a new biotech company storing data nature’s way, in the DNA of plants. This new type of cloud has the potential to store all of the world's data in just 1 kg of DNA. It works with organisms that create their own energy. It stores data in a format that never grows obsolete. And emits life giving oxygen instead of CO2.

 

HARVEST

Julian Oliver uses wind energy to mine cryptocurrency, the earnings of which are used as a source of funding for climate-change research.

The Circuit Breaker

The Circuit Breaker by Samir Bhowmik is a networked participatory installation that critiques the culture of constant connectivity. The installation aims to provoke reflection about the social and energetic impact of our constantly connected digital lives. By placing online behaviour in relation to community-participated criteria of diversity, as well as an environmental agenda, the installation seeks to draw attention to the materialities and infrastructures of connectivity.

Collectivize Facebook

With over two billion users today, Facebook impacts our social, economic and political lives in an unprecedented way. This collective action lawsuit, set up by Jonas Staal and Jan Fermon, aims to force legal recognition of Facebook as a public domain that should be under ownership and control of its users: Facebook must be collectivized.

PublicSpaces

A coalition to design a new platform for social interaction, where users are not viewed as exploitable assets or data sources, but as equal partners that share a common public interest.

Marina Otero Verzier & Marten Kuijpers
Víctor Muñoz Sanz (TU Delft); Marina Otero Verzier, Marten Kuijpers, Grace Abou Jaoudeh (Het Nieuwe Instituut)
Marina Otero Verzier, Marten Kuijpers, Ludo Groen, Ameneh Solati, Anastasia Kubrak & Klaas Kuitenbrouwer (Het Nieuwe Instituut); Merve Bedir, Jason Hilgefort, Junwen Wang & Lucy Xia (Future+ Aformal Academy), Víctor Muñoz Sanz
Víctor Muñoz Sanz & Grace Abou Jaoudeh (TU Delft); Marina Otero Verzier, Marten Kuijpers, Ludo Groen, Emma Paola Flores Herrera & Chris Zogopoulos (Het Nieuwe Instituut)
Marina Otero Verzier, Marten Kuijpers, Anastasia Kubrak & Ludo Groen (Het Nieuwe Instituut); Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli, Laurence Bolhaar, Aleksandar Joksimovic & Anton Anikeev (OMA); Kamil Dalkir & students (RCA)
Lichun Tseng
Design Trust Hong Kong, Consulate General of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Guangzhou and Hong Kong

Automated Landscapes is a long-term collaborative research initiative on the implications of automation for the built environment, launched in 2017 by Het Nieuwe Instituut, and directed by its Research department.