Tectonics of the Immaterial: The Material Footprint of the Immaterial

Cristina Nan: University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom

Giorgio Ponzo: University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom


KEYWORDS: Data Centers, Material Footprint, Immaterial Tectonics, Data Infrastructure, Geology of Media

The technological shift towards smartness — driven by automation, machine learning and the internet of things — mostly perceived as an immaterial phenomena, decoupled from a physical dimension, resides on a vast material footprint, which exists almost unnoticed in the suburbs of our perception. This session, Tectonics of the Immaterial, engages with the notion of data as an immaterial entity which revolutionises the 21st century, but at the same time relies upon a physical footprint, comprised of infrastructure and buildings.

Data, upon which smartness depends and feeds, presents itself as a new currency for architecture. The foundation for its existence are data centres. They epitomise in architectural terms the reinvention of the black box, as known in the aircraft industry, secluded from the system and continuously recording. They personify a new typology, excluding by default the human component: box-like machines to accommodate other machines. Crucial for the global grid, their existence is often hidden away.

But increasing the resolution of inquiry will lead to another facilitator of smartness: rare metals and minerals. Most smart-devices, connected to the global network of data centres, terrestrial or submarine cables and satellites, rely upon lithium-ion batteries. The extraction of lithium is correlated to large scale territorial transformations impacting on landscape, infrastructure and the urban.

This session invites contributions which address the material footprint of data and subsequently smartness on different levels of inquiry: from territorial to landscape, from urban to the built. What are the territorial and urban implications of this technological shift? How smart is smart, when it depends on vast material footprints, often messy and dirty? How can architects/designers use their expertise to inform [digital] strategies on these different levels? Researchers, architects, urban planners and other related practitioners are invited to discuss these complex themes, showing different angles of approach