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Chasing the Cloud: An Introduction to Network Infrastructures

Session B: July 27 – August 6, 2020
9:30 a.m. - 12 p.m.
Computer Science
Zane Cooper

This module seeks to introduce students to critical theories and methods of networked communication infrastructures. Together, we will explore the deep materiality of the internet, with an emphasis on local network infrastructures in Philadelphia. Students will learn how the internet works, how information moves, and how it works through, within, and against other built infrastructures in the city. Each session will focus on a different material component of the internet – fiber optic cables, data centers, hard disk drives, energy, internet governance, etc. We will also utilize the Penn campus as an archaeological site, where we will “dig”, and make the internet visible. Activities include “data walks” on which students will record traces of internet infrastructure on campus, a visit to the ENIAC display in the engineering building, and more! By the end of the module, students will better understand the material footprint of the internet, and will be able to find “the cloud” buried in their own back yards!

Learning Outcomes:

  • Develop a basic understanding of how the internet works at a material level.
  • Learn how internet infrastructure interacts with other infrastructural systems, specifically water and energy.
  • Gain knowledge of the monumental amount of “invisible work” that undergirds the internet’s continued operation and maintenance.
  • Become acquainted with the history of the internet through a material lens.
  • Learn how internet infrastructure looks and functions within the city of Philadelphia.

Session 1: The 2 Internets – Cyberspace vs. Meatspace

  • Come with questions and your own ideas about what you think the internet is, its shape, its feel, its color, etc. We will discuss. Then we will draw.

Session 2: Network Histories

  • Today we will familiarize ourselves with the early history of the internet, with a focus on its supporting infrastructure.

Session 3: Cables

  • Today we delve into the dirty business of “connection” – what it takes, how it happens, and who makes it happen. We will explore 2 interactive submarine cable maps and screen an excerpt of Rithy Panh’s documentary about connecting Cambodia called The Land of Wandering Souls.

Session 4: Data Centers

  • Today we will discuss the social and environmental implications of data centers and the various infrastructural relationships required to keep them humming.

Session 5: Imagining vs. Sensing the Cloud

  • Today we will look at how “the cloud” is branded, and the ways in which this branding masks the infrastructural complexity of the internet. Then we will use a cloud-based social media platform to sense traces of network connection around Penn’s campus.

Session 6: Network Infrastructures in the Global South

  • Today we will explore the multiplicity of material manifestations of the internet across the globe, with a focus on Africa, and how access and reliability of other infrastructural systems shape internet access and use. We will see how one’s material relationship to network infrastructure is political, and shaped by race, class, and colonial histories.

Session 7: The Stuff of Blockchain

  • Today we will be discussing cryptocurrency and blockchain, but from an infrastructural perspective. What seems like an immaterial, decentralized network soon becomes far heavier and more complex the closer we look.

Session 8: Mining Data

  • Today we talk explicitly about dirty data, and how we cannot understand digital networks without understanding how dirt and rocks get extracted, moved, and formed into information. In our discussion, we will unpack how digital data, and the infrastructure that supports it, depend on raw resource mining around the globe.

Session 9: Waste/Reuse

  • Today we talk about the complex problem of E-waste, and try to come to terms with what waste is in the first place – how it is defined, and the politics of those definitions. Then we will recycle some E-waste ourselves!