Acid clouds over the Netherlands: Niels Schrader on data centre topologies

Niels Schrader, Eleni Maragkou

8 min readMar 15, 2024

During the autumn of 2023, FIBER hosted Part 5 of its Reassemble Lab: Practising Permacomputing, a concept and a nascent community of practice oriented around issues of resilience and regenerativity in computer and network technology that is derived, among others, from permaculture principles. Graphic designer Niels Schrader, who presented his work during the Lab, spoke to FIBER about his work of mapping the topologies of data centres and the importance of materiality.

Interxion AMS 8, Aalsmeerderbrug. Acid Clouds by Niels Schrader in collaboration with Roel Backaert, 2018-ongoing.

Where do data reside? How do they relate to their natural and built environments? What collective imaginaries emerge through their normative representations? And what is the ecological impact of our perpetually accumulating data waste?

In the Netherlands, the number of large-scale repositories of data has been exponentially growing. As the home base of the largest Internet Exchange Point (IXP), known as the Amsterdam Internet Exchange (AMS-IX), Amsterdam itself is enormously data-dense. Yet data centres, despite their size, are largely invisible. Their sterile exterior masks the ideological contours and material traces of digital storage.

Quoted in Andrew Blum’s book Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet, a Facebook (now Meta) data centre manager refers to the elemental and material properties of data: “This has nothing to do with clouds. It has everything to do with being cold”. Grounding our descriptions and analyses of abstract concepts to material specificity allows us to see clearly behind the narrative implied in the cold façade of data centres, into issues of ownership and administration, access to information, and privacy.

Initiated by graphic designer Niels Schrader and photographer Roel Backaert, Acid Clouds is a project which methodically captures the spatial presence of server farms in the Netherlands. Since 2018, the pair have been photographing data centres at night, identifying the motives and effects obscured by the sleek cloud infrastructure. Their colourful photographs reveal data centres as infrastructures of power and provide alternative visual rhetorics to those curated by tech companies.

Together with editor Jorinde Seijdel, Schrader and Backaert have been working on a print version of Acid Clouds, in the form of a publication featuring photos and essays on pressing issues related to the topic of data centres. The book, set to be published through nai010, will raise urgent ethical and political issues around big data and living with it.

During one of the workshops of FIBER’s Permacomputing Lab, Schrader presented his research and discussed the importance of shining a light on the materiality of data. FIBER spoke with him after the Lab’s conclusion — below is this conversation, edited for clarity.

Acid Clouds by Niels Schrader in collaboration with Roel Backaert, 2018-ongoing.

Please introduce yourself and your practice, and briefly situate your work to an audience of non-experts.

My name is Niels Schrader, I’m an information designer and educator with a fascination for numbers and data. I’m founder of the Amsterdam-based design studio Mind Design, head of programme of the master Non Linear Narrative at the Royal Academy of Art (KABK) in The Hague and initiator of the Acid Clouds research project. Next to my design practice, I write also regularly for Grafikmagazin and Open! Platform for Art, Culture & the Public Domain.

During one of our (FIBER Reassemble Lab) workshops, you presented your project, “Acid Clouds”, which maps the material traces of virtual data in the Netherlands. How was this project initiated? And how did you repurpose mapping as a tool to identify and resist infrastructures of power?

Acid Clouds started when I was looking for visual material to illustrate a presentation on data pollution that I was supposed to give at the Fault Lines Symposium 2018. The publicly available photos of endless server racks were not satisfying enough to give the truthful image of what the actual condition of the Dutch spatial data infrastructure looked like.

Generic images of servers, network cables and cooling equipment organised in long corridors would not bring forward any operational details and any sense of physical geography was hidden behind a veil of abstraction. It seemed that the vagueness was serving a purpose, namely to strengthen the myth of pristine data cathedrals and to divert public scrutiny from what data centres really are: concrete capital-driven places of real-estate, where corporations use large-scale computation to monetise user data.

You can see Acid Clouds as a form of counter-mapping through which I and photographer Roel Backaert identify and capture spaces of data extractivism.

“Acid Clouds” has been turned into a soon-to-be-published anthology, which weaves together data about more than 100 data centres across the Netherlands with essays and photographs. Can you describe the process and explain the significance of translating this project into a book?

The urgency of Acid Clouds is embedded in crucial ecological, socio-economic, political and ethical issues arising from the general imperative to digitise all kinds of operations, actions, and data, without fully understanding the ecological footprint. The choice to create a print publication stems from the assumption that the central theme of data centres is actually served by reflection and imagination from a physical and sustainable object, rather than from a digital, more volatile form.

Literally and figuratively, the book takes a strong position as a concrete and tangible starting point: because the book as a medium falls outside the research fields and discourses of the publication, it can take a more objective and critical position. Within the tangible boundaries of a printed book, the publication focuses on the earthbound properties of digital storage.

Equinix AM4, Amsterdam. Acid Clouds by Niels Schrader in collaboration with Roel Backaert, 2018-ongoing.

Why is learning about the materiality of digital infrastructures important?

In the technology sector, the capitalistic promise of infinite economic growth is locked tight to Gordon Moore’s observation that the number of transistors on a chip doubles every year while its costs are halved. It describes the rapid growth in computational power over decades. Similar dynamics emerge in the global demand for data storage and it seems that both are interlinked. The faster you can process data, the bigger your appetite for it.

Conversely, the more data becomes available, the more computational power is required for storage and processing. The industry creates incentives for users not only to produce content, but also to share and back it up, meaning in fact to endlessly duplicate and never delete. Continuous storage is labelled by the tech industry as the solution to our storage problem, but it is in fact creating it instead. The more kilo, mega, giga, tera, peta or exa, the more we unlearn to control our digital clutter. Clutter that manifests itself as overly full inboxes with unanswered e-mails, deserted social media accounts we never actually visit anymore, long-forgotten download files clogging disk space and abandoned Dropbox folders storing identical data on multiple devices.

We need to start understanding that all our digital habits are having a direct or indirect tangible impact on our living environment.

The data centres you photographed look strangely beautiful, albeit in a way that seems removed from the human element. How would you describe the impact of data centres on their immediate environment? What does their architecture tell us about the undergirding ideologies?

The complexity of the impact of data centres touches many topics, from the giant ecological and economic footprint to urgent ethical issues in the field of digital rights. It also concerns subjects like the public access to information, the vulnerability of data versus their indelibility, the limitedness of raw materials, but also the effects on local communities, residential areas and an overstretched energy network. Acid Clouds is therefore an attempt to bring attention to the importance of understanding ethical implications related to the housing and administration of data.

Science Park, a global internet and data hub, frames itself as an ecosystem. The cloud suggests that something is floating in the sky. Such metaphors are prevalent in our daily encounters with networks, data, and computers: the cloud, windows, platforms, desktops, etc. Can you speak on the role metaphors play in shaping our sociotechnical imaginaries?

The metaphor of a fluffy, vaporous “cloud” deflects attention from the power-consuming and earthbound qualities of digital data storage. Regardless of their actual origins, the targeted use of these kind of euphemisms needs to be scrutinised. We need to understand how they are used and what they represent. But on top of the verbal rhetoric, tech companies also handle a similarly coded visual language to depict their large-scale data infrastructures.

Google, for example, used in 2012 professional photography to shape public perception. They commissioned New York based photographer Connie Zhou to take a series of photographs under the name “Where the Internet Lives”. Evidently, to give a peek behind the closed doors of Google’s cloud infrastructure. But rather than capturing the boring and mundane nature of these locations, the company chose to stage data centres as places of playful innocence and high controllability. The discomfort about this kind of images, is one of the driving factors behind Acid Clouds.

Amsterdam Data Tower. Acid Clouds by Niels Schrader in collaboration with Roel Backaert, 2018-ongoing.

Extractive and colonial practices are reconfigured digitally through the infiltration of big data on life itself. According to Bruce Schneier: “Data is the pollution problem of the information age.” What strategies do you recommend for people who want to begin divesting from the ongoing datafication and quantification of our lives?

People need to realise that they are complicit with the extractive logics of the data economy we live in. Under the banner of self-realization and -optimisation, we follow the call of the digital sirens way too easily. We purchase, we consume, we discard, and the cycle starts over again. If we carry on like this, we’ll amuse ourselves to death. Once we acknowledge our own culpability, scaling down seems to be the most obvious step to take. Unplugging for a healthier lifestyle, that’s what you can do on an individual level. On a higher level, we’ll need to fight for more regulatory means. As outlined by Bruce Schneier, we should approach this matter as a pollution challenge. A stinky, hazardous problem of data pollution. Here, EU legislation could pave again the way to greener alternatives.

Our society is built upon digital infrastructures that are predicated on the extraction of finite resources. Can we imagine computation as a tool for ecological awareness instead, for example through permacomputing?

Technically, pollution-free computation is a bit of a paradox. Computers consume energy, so the process of extraction is implied. However, permacomputing will definitely point us into right direction. The initiative gives people back agency and encourages everyone to imagine more sustainable alternatives. But it is also clear that a radical shift is necessary to break free from Gordon Moore’s suffocating grip. The capitalistic promise of infinite economic growth is locked tight to Moore’s Law, which states that the number of transistors on a chip doubles every year while its costs are halved. The exhaustive effects of this ever-increasing acceleration are already noticeable, so eventually, society will need to learn to “de-data”.

Niels Schrader is an information designer and founder of the Amsterdam-based design studio Mind Design. He is also head of the Master Non Linear Narrative at the Royal Academy of Arts (KABK) in The Hague which focuses on social, political and environmental processes driven and influenced by digital technologies. Next to his design practice, Schrader writes regularly for Grafikmagazin and Open! — Platform for Art, Culture & the Public Domain.




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