“The photos or videos of data centers are always quite sexy looking . . . . But the sound is quite hard, it’s pretty brutal.”
An interview with Katharine Schwab for Fast Co. Magazine
Does the internet have a sound? Is it the whirring fan that keeps your computer from overheating? Is it a flurry of incessant notification pings? Is it the cackling laugh of Chewbacca Mom? Or is a monotonous drone, humming from an anonymous building where servers spin their disks and spit out information to millions of devices across a global network?
This is the soundtrack to the web documentary The People’s Cloud, by the filmmaker and sound designer Matt Parker. The documentary follows Parker’s journey to a series of data centers and fiber optic cable networks as he demystifies the physical backbone of the cloud. Armed with a set of microphones as well as his camera, Parker also recorded the sounds of the locations he visited across Europe. The resulting soundtrack is a sonic portrait of the network infrastructure that powers our world.
“Companies use these terms like ethernet or the cloud or virtual–these sorts of words help to distance our perception of what’s actually going on when we make a connection to the internet through our computer, or through our phone, which feels completely untethered to anything,” Parker says. “I’m trying to find ways to allow these spaces to speak for themselves in an acoustic sense, in a way that is thinking about how the internet isn’t just some kind of magical land up in the clouds floating about, but is something that’s very much a product of very intense industry on a global scale that affects urban spaces, non-urban spaces, the ocean, the rural.”
Beneath the internet we experience, there’s a dark, rumbling sound. The soundtrack to The People’s Cloud is a medley of compositions that mix brutal, clashing sounds with beautiful, tonal layers of white noise.
Some tracks include natural sounds, particularly those of the ocean, which Parker recorded all along the coast of the United Kingdom where fiber optic cables meet the sea, including the cable U.K.-Netherlands 14, linking Winterton-on-Sea, U.K., and Egmond Aan Zee, the Netherlands, and the Sirius South cable linking Blackpool, U.K., and Dublin. Thousands of miles of these cables form the undersea network that underpins the internet and makes it possible to reach someone across the globe in seconds. The gentle lull of the waves mix with the droning of machines in track six, Quantum Leaps.
Other tracks refer to specific places. One track is based off recordings of the Netherlands’ supercomputer, SURFsara. Another, entitled KEF201C, is a raw recording of a data center complex in Iceland that hosts a very large bitcoin mine. The grating noise, likely due to the sheer number of electronic devices working at once combined with the whirring of their fans, is liable to give you a headache if you can make it through all four minutes and 30 seconds of the piece.
“The photos or videos of data centers are always quite sexy looking, they have this big tech kind of look,” Parker says. “There’s something kind of appealing of it. But the sound is quite hard, it’s pretty brutal.”
Fundamentally, data centers are not spaces designed for people–they’re loud, cold, harsh places. The intensity of Parker’s sound recordings reflects that. “People aren’t really meant to be in the spaces for very long. I probably spent more time than I should,” Parker says. “There are people who work in them for a long time. I can’t imagine how it’d be anything other than damaging to their health to be in a space like that.”
In other words, the recordings are meant to ground listeners, to give them a dose of the reality of these types of spaces–which they’ll likely never visit. Parker himself experienced serious challenges when trying to gain access; for every location he did visit, there were many that he was denied access to. “People at these companies are holding very sensitive content and they have clients who are very protective about how that data is represented or who gets to access the spaces where that data is stored,” he says. “If they let anyone with a microphone wander around, perhaps that’s suggesting they’re not being as diligent as they should be about the spaces.”
He was surprised to find that when a location was open to him visiting, they were much more willing to allow a microphone inside than a camera. “People find the visual a much more threatening medium,” he says. “Sound seems harmless or benign, but we also know it’s incredibly dangerous. It’s used as a weapon and as a method of control.”
Parker, who is now at work on another episode of The People’s Cloud, isn’t alone in being entranced by the sound of the cloud. In fact, several other artists and musicians who have found inspiration in internet infrastructure. The DJ Tim Exile created a dance floor-ready composition with sounds from IBM’s data centers in fall of 2016. Evan Roth, a Paris-based artist, documents the fiber optic cable landing locations along the coast of Sweden in his series Landscapes.
For these artists, capturing the sights and sounds of the web is a rebuttal to the vast, intangible presence of the internet. No longer magic, the droning sounds of servers and cooling fans bring the cloud back down to Earth.
I have been working through some ideas based around delay line memory storage and long wire instruments. I’m starting the research with a reconstruction of Alvin Lucier’s Music on a Long Thin Wire. I’ve played with a number of scenarios and think this could work really well as a sonic media archaeological installation concerning digital memories. Below is a sound recording and a short video to act as proof of initial concept. All very prototpyical so not at all polished.