The Cybernetic Wilderness of Data Centres

Donal Lally

This essay is an excerpt of States of Entanglement: Data in the Irish Landscape by ANNEX. Published by Actar Publishers

The data centre is arguably the iconic architectural typology of the information age. Like a weed, it can exist in extreme environments, reproduces quickly, and can overrun delicate ecosystems. To date, its adaptability has been enabled by the extreme standardisation of its component parts. With advances in artificial intelligence enhancing this adaptability, we are now witnessing the data centre as catalyst for a new urban habitat. This article is about a cybernetic wilderness – dominated by data centres – that is present and growing on the edges of Dublin city; a wilderness where machines commune with machines and the human is pushed to the periphery.

Fig. 1. Martello Tower, Shenick Island, Skerries, Co. Dublin.
Weeds, relics, and ghosts

In his seminal text on the erosion of biodiversity, The End of the Wild, Stephen M. Meyer categorises two species: the ‘Weedy’ and the ‘Relic’. [1] Weedy species are adaptive generalists; they flourish in various ecological settings, especially human-made environments. They can sustain themselves on a diverse range of food types; they expand into, then overrun, ecosystems through rapid reproduction. Weedy species, by their very nature, seek to territorialise and dominate ecosystems – with catastrophic effects. They quickly adapt to local conditions and, through force of numbers, overrun less adaptive species. Once overrun, that found system’s prior complex heterogeneity is replaced with the pervasive invader’s simple homogeneity. Examples of Weedy species are the jellyfish, black rats, pigeons, cockroaches, coyotes, cheatgrass, dandelions, European buckthorn, knapweed, and humans.

Relic species rarely survive the process of being territorialised. Slow to adapt, Relic species are specialists; they tend to be highly integrated into their particular ecosystem and any disruption to that system can profoundly affect the Relic. Relic species usually cannot easily coexist with humans. Examples are large mammals like elephants, the white rhino, panda; predators such as the big cats; and endemic species such as the Galápagos’ unique animal and plant life. As humans (and the Weedy species that follow in our wake) territorialise new ecosystems, the invaded system’s ability to naturally sustain the Relic species is weakened, disrupted, or destroyed. If territorialisation continues unchecked, the Relic loses its ecological value and is destined to become an ecological ornament.

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[15] Microsoft is building its own power station in Dublin to provide electricity to its data centres as the local network hasn’t been upgraded quickly enough to meet a surge in demand. See: John Mulligan, ‘Microsoft forced to build Dublin power station to service huge data centre’, Irish Independent, 16 September 2017, https://www.independent.ie/business/microsoft-forced-to-build-dublinpower-station-to-service-hugedata-centre-36137561.html, (accessed 1 December 2020).
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[17] For further detail, see planning applications SD16A/0398, SD15A/0061, and SD15A/0052 via South Dublin County Council. Available online at https://www.sdcc.ie/en/services/planning/planning-applications/search-and-view/.
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