It's easy to glibly assume that bits and atoms have nothing in common. "The cloud" is some vaporous never-never land where all our photos and documents and emails live. It's everywhere and nowhere!
Actually, it's neither. It's in data centers. Hulking, power-hungry, server-stuffed data centers. Every single one of those billions upon billions of weightless bits rely on corresponding physical substrates, somewhere.
Timo Arnall, a filmmaker and design researcher who has collaborated on some of Berg design's most interesting work, has created a large-format documentary film called Internet Machine, which takes viewers inside "the cloud" and exposes its very real, and very weird, inner features.
The film has no narration and no characters—just the physical architecture and equipment of the data centers themselves, and the subtle ambient noises they generate. The filmmaking is crystalline and hypnotic, all extreme wide shots and slow zooms. The idea, says Arnall, is to "[be] drawn into the space by these subtle movements, but still get time to move our eyes over the space, to study it and reflect on it. Data centers are complex spaces, and they require rather formal framing in order to allow the audience to take in the complexity," he says.
Arnall filmed for two days in "one of the largest, most secure and ‘fault-tolerant’ data centers in the world," located in Alcalá, Spain. The film is part of an art exhibition in Barcelona called Big Bang Data, and it plays on a triad of huge screens that viewers can walk right up to, as if they are entering the data center themselves. This poor-man's-virtual-reality experience was planned by Arnall from the start. "Inside this 5-metre-by-5-metre projection space, many people can experience data centers at an architectural scale, almost 1:1," he tells Co.Design. "The slow camera moves mean that the film remains highly photographic, without feeling still or lifeless." In other words, it turns out you don't need a fancy hacked Kinect or Oculus Rift rig to transport viewers into another place.
Arnall describes the metaphor of "the cloud" as "childish," and intends his film to be a critique of it. "We’re surrounded by the fluffy rhetoric of technology and of the Internet, and there’s far too little investigation and reflection on what these systems are and how our physical world is also changing," he says. "We must think of bits as material things." Consider that as you read this article and watch Internet Machine's trailer: Where are all the atoms that your digital life takes for granted?