Data Havens of Iceland

Alix Johnson, a PhD student in cultural anthropology at UC Santa Cruz, will be going to Iceland to study the practices and discourses of data centers. She studies information infrastructures in capitalist economies and postcolonial politics, and researches these questions in Iceland where they take strange and fascinating forms.

Adam Fish: What makes Iceland important for information activism?

Since Iceland’s pretty spectacular financial crash, and the subsequent protests that kicked the government out of office, information technology and politics have cropped up in many projects of reform.  In a lot of ways the crisis was framed as a problem of secrecy – too much secrecy had allowed for massive banking risks and backroomban deals, and this was a problem more public information could solve.  The politics of information freedom, then, have been appealing and are taken up in a range of ways: for example, the so-called “crowdsourced constitution,” Iceland’s ongoing connections with WikiLeaks, and most recently the election of three Pirate Party MPs – the first Pirates elected to a national parliament.

But the part of this turn that interests me most – and the piece that my research aims to address – is the way that information is used to carve Iceland out a new niche.  In recent years Iceland has been pitched as an “information haven”: an attractive place to store the data of the world.  The idea is that data stored in Iceland is subject to Icelandic laws – so by passing “information friendly” legislation (favoring free speech, online privacy, and intermediary liability protection), and building data centers where information can live (an easy sell in Iceland thanks to the cool climate and inexpensive geothermal power), Iceland can change the rules of the game. In my research I ask how these efforts reconfigure the internet and re-imagine the nation, by following the “information haven” as it’s materially made.

AF: Cloud computing companies are the quintessential black box, difficult to access the people who work inside and once inside difficult to understand. How have you overcome these difficulties?

Honestly I’ve had to structure my approach to work around them.  But I’ve mostly come to terms with these limitations, as I’m less interested in data centers’ inner workings, and more concerned with their impact on and role within the communities where they “live”.  That is, while I do spend time with data center developers, I hope to spend more time interviewing locals – who more often see these new structures as big buildings that block ocean views, capital-intensive construction projects that redirect municipal funds, or concrete tributes to transnational connection.  From this perspective, secrecy can make an interesting starting point.  That said, I also read the trade publications, and look forward to my very few allotted trips inside!

AF: You are going for a year, what are you going to do? With which companies will you work?

My aim is to trace the social and material networks that make up the Icelandic “information haven,” so I’ll position myself to follow these shifting collaborations.  I plan to spend half my time Reykjavík and half my time in Hafnarfjördur, a port town south of the capitol on Iceland’s south-west coast.  In Reykjavík I’ll work with information activists at the International Modern Media Institute, tech sector entrepreneurs at the cloud storage start-up GreenQloud, and government liaisons at Invest in Iceland, the agency tasked with attracting data center development.  These unlikely allies (with only partially overlapping interests, stakes, and aims) work together to frame Iceland as information’s natural home.  From Reykjavík I’ll head to Hafnarfjördur, the site of a new data center built by Advania THOR.  Here I’ll talk with data center developers, employees, and local residents, to learn how information infrastructure is shifting the town’s natural, social and political terrain.  Basically I’ll be following the information infrastructure, learning how it works and getting a sense of how it may be shifting Icelandic identity and sense of place.

AF: Anthropologists have studied tech companies and infrastructure but I can’t recall anyone studying the convergence of the two. Whose research inspires you methodologically and theoretically and why?

I’ve been inspired by a wide range of work on infrastructure in relation to politics and power – Thomas Hughes on electrification, Paul Edwards on computers and the Cold War, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun on fiber-optics, and Akhil Anand on water “pressure” in Mumbai. But lately I’m especially excited by literature that takes up infrastructures’ affective potential – I’m thinking of Brian Larkin’s ethnography and cogent review, Rudolf Mrázek’s Engineers and Political Dreams, and Gaston Gordillo’s beautiful writing on ruins, all of which have really opened up my approach.  I’ve also been thinking with William Mazzarella’s work on mediation, as a lens on what we think the internet is and can do.

AF: What common misconceptions of the internet might your research dispel?

I sure hope it’s apparent by now that the internet is material and the internet is political – my work starts from these propositions and argues the two are intertwined.  Information infrastructure in Iceland shows it matters where “the cloud” touches ground – data centers reconfigure local landscapes, while concretizing specific vectors of transnational connection.  In doing to they shift senses of identity, space and place, allowing, for example, a relatively marginal North Atlantic island to reposition itself as the center of a new world.  So far from a smooth space of frictionless flows, the internet is striated and uneven terrain.  Digital anthropologists have shown this to be true in social spaces (i.e. who participates in online communities and how), but I think questions of difference and power are equally visible and equally interesting in the internet’s very physical presence, as a network of cables, chemicals and machines.

AF: With networked authoritarianism, mass domestic surveillance, draconian sentences for information activists, the exploitation of “free” social media labour, etc. one could make the claim that the present internet is broken. One thing that inspires me about the discourse around the internet in Iceland is the idea that another internet is possible, materially and politically. Is another internet possible or necessary and can the practices in Iceland bring it about?

I absolutely agree that big change is in order, and I would say Icelandic efforts chart a promising path.  But “another internet” may miss the mark in this case.  For one thing, I want to be careful not to oversell – the system Iceland’s building is still relatively untested, and I’ve found opinions to be split between believers in the power and possibility of data sovereignty, and those who think the NSA will go where it wants to go.  But the idea of “another internet” might also obscure the nature of Iceland’s actual innovations.  While some internet activists are indeed experimenting with alternatives (for example the Hackerspace Global Grid), most people I know in Iceland are making clever changes to what we have, modifying and customizing already-existing systems – whether through legal “hacks” like the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (IMMI), or by building more publically accessible tools for encryption.   Anthropologists and STS scholars have long talked about infrastructures as complex co-productions between official ambitions, aesthetic ideals, everyday encounters, and material things.  Many Icelandic information activists share this view, and use it to take apart and tweak what most of us take for granted – and I think that possibility is just as exciting as building something new.

AF: So the “information haven” discourse is a post-collapse response. Is the technology sector framed in Iceland as one key component of developing more robust and stable economic endeavors capable of staving off the risks of globalization?

It is, and this is a pretty interesting strategy: essentially Iceland is tapping into what’s seen as the quintessential vehicle of globalization and putting it to work in the service of national distinction.

AF: I like how you said, “information is used to carve Iceland out a new niche,” it supposes some actors framing information as an asset for generating economic and political capital mobilized to resituate the island post-collapse and rebirth as an insurgent infrastructural player, or what you graphically call “concrete tributes to transnational connection”. Would this run against or with the larger political goals of the IMMI or the new three Icelandic Pirate Party MPs? Briggita Jonisdottir, one of the elected and collaborators with Wikileaks, seems opposed to informational neoliberalism. There is an ideology of transparency in the Wikileaks associated internet freedom activists in Iceland but “privacy” (secrecy for the individual) is central to the business proposition of the data centers you’ll investigate. My question is: while the data centers and the progressive politicians may appear to share a platform isn’t it contradictory to frame Iceland’s future to be about both radical transparency and pragmatic privacy? Seeing that Iceland is trying to present itself as a data haven for both camps, how will these contradictions be ameliorated?

Absolutely – the project brings together collaborators with very different ideas about what information is and does.  Activists who’ve long campaigned for online rights and information freedom are suddenly finding their ideas more marketable; data center developers can now link promises of profit to national dreams.  So while there are definitely tensions between their positions (with state agencies, tech sector startups, and foreign investors also implicated, in other ways), they also depend on one another.  Part of my research will be investigating the day-to-day work through which conflicts and contradictions between them get resolved.

AF: I am sure job creation is a concern for the locals. Do data centers produce alot or few jobs? What kind of jobs are created by data centers? Who takes them? If not jobs, how are the data centers “sold” to the locals?

Data centers themselves offer little employment – a handful of people can run a huge operation, and the work is increasingly automated and handled by machines.  There are some pockets of employment that crop up around them – for example, the firms handling the client side of cloud storage, and some secondary markets like restaurants and hotels – but mainly these projects are pitched in other ways.  In Iceland they’re major sources of foreign direct investment, which is seen as “real” money pumped directly into the economy (and much appreciated in the wake of the crash).  I think they’re also linked to particular vision of Iceland’s future, as a cosmopolitan, connected, powerful place – itself a project that’s contested and under construction.

AF: Sounds like a fascinating and visually evocative documentary–the semi-automated data centers whirring alone in with Icelandic tundra–with major implications. Do you consider incorporating a visual anthropological or filmic methodology to your research?

It’s definitely a possibility, but I worry that that scene is the only one I’d be allowed to film!  Several colleagues in my department though have started working with sound, – as ethnographic data, object of inquiry, and mode of presentation, and this is an avenue I’d love to explore.

AF: What do you make of the discourse of “internet freedom”? On the one hand you have people like Morozov say it is pure ideology obscuring information imperialism, on the other hand you have information activists like Robert McChesney and Free Press using the term to galvanize anti-SOPA activism and the like.

“Information freedom” is a useful catch-all that can work as a kind of boundary object for people working in different directions.  In Iceland the polysemy of the term “information” has linked journalists, hackers, and transparency activists in pretty powerful ways.  But it’s also often used to describe liberal and neoliberal projects, with their own sets of issues and exclusions.  I do believe mobilizing against schemes like SOPA matters, but to my mind it’s always important to get specific, asking what exactly information is and how it’s being freed.  This is where some of Morozov’s writing falls short for me, though I do agree with the point he ultimately makes: the internet isn’t an inherently liberating force, and it doesn’t work to “add technology and stir.”  Instead we need take seriously its political and cultural context, and I would add its material form.  To me that makes an excellent entry point for anthropology.

AF: Thank you, Alix!