Inoperable Communities in the Cloud: Server Farms and the Ideology of Participation

Tung-Hui Hu
Thursday, October 3, 2013 - 4:30pm
Allen Auditorium, Allen Library
The cloud is less like a rhizome than a city of gated communities which, sociologist Ulrich Beck argues, optimizes productive activity and 'safety' by minimizing risk and encounter between those at different ends of the socioeconomic curve. These gates are often implicit; as new media scholars have shown, advertising, web content, and search results online are filtered through algorithmic reconstructions of gender, race, and other markers of identity. But the partitions result equally from our own willingness. We work to identify friends, tag photos, police bad behavior, and block untrustworthy users, and we do so because we consent to the cloud's ideology of active participation.

Responding to the ways that the cloud co-opts our affective labor, this paper examines the materiality of its server farms, in which each user's data sit uncomfortably next to terabytes of others' pornographers, jihadists, bankers, hobbyists. When the software fails, data may 'leak' from one virtual machine to another, spilling across the normal partitions between users. Without partitions, they recall persons gathered by happenstance inside a crowd, largely opaque to one another and yet constituted through that opacity. Community is built on many such moments of 'worklessness,' a word I borrow from Jean-Luc Nancy to describe the moments that the cloud's gates and channels become inoperable. It is only in such turns away from participation that we are able to reimagine the topology of control.

Presented as part of Histories and Futures of the Book lecture series.

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