Silicon Forest and Server Farms: The (Urban) Nature of Digital Capitalism in the Pacific Northwest

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Anthony M. Levenda and Dillon Mahmoudi. "Silicon Forest and Server Farms: The (Urban) Nature of Digital Capitalism in the Pacific Northwest." Culture Machine: v. 18.


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Access to inexpensive hydro-resources, such as hydro-electricity and water for cooling, cheap land, and proximity to undersea networks have created a spatial sweet spot for big tech companies such as Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon in the Pacific Northwest. These factors are leveraged as ‘natural’ reasons for the growth of the data center industry in the region, often accompanied by promises of new jobs and a rhetoric of economic transition from forestry to data. In reality, broader social and environmental implications are neglected in deference to companies that sell visions of big-data-driven economic growth for local communities devastated by crises of capital. Allusions to resource economies and ecological metaphors paint data centers as a natural evolution in resource economies while maintaining a veneer of environmentally sustainable development. While data centers do offer some moderate benefits for local communities, they also facilitate the uneven development of digital capitalism by providing the storage and processing power for data extractivism. In this essay, we argue that the growth in data infrastructures (fixed capital) is driven by the central features of an uneven development of digital capitalism wherein the appropriation of nature, and as Marx refers to in the epigraph from the influential Fragment on Machines, social knowledge, are forces of production for the accumulation of capital. We advance this argument in three parts. First, we argue ‘nature’ is produced and mobilized by large firms in their site selection and construction of data centers and data infrastructures. In short, nature is reduced to the nature that digital capital finds useful: cheap energy, cheap water, cheap land, and green imagery. Second, we argue this production of nature is at once a production of fixed capital representative of digital capitalism (data centers, fiberoptic cables, etc.). We describe this process as a ‘layering’ of infrastructures. Third, we argue these processes are linked to urbanization and cognitive dispossession as a generalized strategy of accumulation. We show how digital capitalism is tethered to urbanization, or what Scott (2011b) calls ‘third-wave urbanization’. Urbanization here refers to the actual unfolding of physical infrastructure in the secondary circuit of capital (Harvey, 2006) and the ‘urbanization of the general intellect’ (Merrifield, 2012, 2013) which creates the conditions for data extractivism and cognitive dispossession (Negri, 2018; Wyly & Dhillon, 2018). Capital accumulation is dependent on both building a data infrastructure (to sink capital and avert crises) and exchanging, surveilling, and/or abstracting events and statuses to extract data (to produce profits through service provision, advertising, selling data profiles, etc.).