Within the fabric of data and energy

What is visible and what is beyond? More data, more space, more landscapes.

Landscapes become more and more intertwined with modern urbanization – and digitization. The electrical infrastructure has already been part of our landscapes for generations. Thus, we have learned to unsee transmission towers bursting through forests and farmland, their overhead power lines hovering high in the sky. Now, the data infrastructure is drastically changing not only the digital but the spatial landscapes due to our online consumption and communication patterns. With data centers becoming as common as wind mill farms, data has become part of our new energy landscapes.

When shopping online we pay little attention to its impact on landscapes, much because where the small town centrum was shaped by humans, the digital centrum for consumption and public life in cyberspace is shaped by algorithms, difficult if not impossible for most of us to grasp. 

And data clearly need storage, consume a lot of energy and occupy landscapes. Thus, the hinterlands (areas lying beyond what is visible or known) are being shaped by our new energy landscapes.

These landscapes inhabit data infrastructure. In order for us to make them visible to us, we need to move beyond reading landscapes as physical and spatial – and expand our landscape literacy to include how data turn into ‘matter’ or materiality. 

Anne Whiston Spirn, professor of Landscape Architecture and Planning at MIT, has been researching landscape literacy since the 80s. According to Spirn, landscapes encompass both the population of a place and its physical features: its topography, water flow, and plant life; its infrastructure of streets and sewers; its buildings and open spaces (Spirn 1998).

Using this definition of landscape allows us to expand our landscape literacy by researching the topographical impact of our online consumption, data storage and the physical storage of the product we just ordered from Amazon. This research is not about Amazon, but rather on what infrastructure is necessary for us to push that App and order the product. In other words, it is a design research unfolding the hidden connection between us pushing the button on our App and the infrastructure scattered in the landscapes that will bring us the package.

This data population, digital topography and flows of data will unfold new energy landscapes with data infrastructure as part of their fabric.

At LABLAB we explore and communicate the relationship between the perception of landscape and its actual transformations. Digitization is such a transformation, with data infrastructure becoming intertwined with and changing the landscapes.

Hinterlands: “an area lying beyond what is visible or known”

Unsee: ”to forget having seen (something): to erase the image of (something) from one’s memory”

Thumbnail:

  • “a very small or concise description, representation, or summary.”
  • “a small picture of an image or page on a computer screen”